My ties to Willie Nelson were never all that evident. They barely existed, to tell you the truth. My stepfather owned a Willie Nelson greatest hits CD during my musically formative years and it rarely made it to the front room CD player. Only when I saw fit to imitate Willie’s distinctive warble in either “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” or “On the Road Again” (which I can still manage on demand) would his music enter our home. He was an old, smiling man with braids and he looked like a hitchhiker — that’s where my thoughts of Willie began and ended.
Rediscovery is sweet
I was rummaging through my friend Scotty’s vast collection of CDs, which he has collected over the past 10 years as music editor for the newspaper I once worked for. A year ago, he counted them — he had 5,000. Add about 2,500 to that number and you may come close to what he’s got now. His music takes up an entire bedroom of his two-room apartment and scads of promotional albums waiting to be filed in the other room have yet to be organized. His music library ranks higher than regular libraries in my book, especially considering I’m his only customer and I’m the only one doing any “checking out”. No limits, no library cards, and no overdue fees.
That’s when I found it.
“How’s this Teatro album?” came my query. “Any good?”
“Oh yeah,” he stressed, as he always stresses when I ask him about any music that he owns. “You should borrow it.”
I added it to my stack of 15 or so and made way for my car stereo, determined to see if I could prove him wrong.
Rebirth is even sweeter
Teatro is an interesting concept. Producer Daniel Lanois has taken several old Willie tunes (and a few new ones) and added the impeccable Emmylou Harris on backup, offering a sense of clarity and richness to his music few of his albums can boast. And, since Willie has been singing most of these songs since the 1960s, he’s already familiar with the music. If ever there was a chance for him to sound more relaxed with this material than with songs he’s recorded for the first time, well, this is it.
The combination of a higher quality of sound, embittered love songs and laid-back Latin guitar is amazing. And it doesn’t exist in just one song, but in all of them — the south-of-the-border feel transcends throughout its 50 minutes and something-seconds. From the spooky guitar-piano intro of “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?” (or “Where Are You, My Love” sa Ingles) that morphs seamlessly into “I Never Cared for You”, each song seems somehow connected to the next. Even the new ones — “Everywhere I Go”, “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and “I’ve Loved You All Over the World” — don’t depart from its essence; it’s difficult to pick out the new from the renewed. Each vignette builds upon another, all part of a larger photo album of timeless music, if you will.
Don’t like country? No problem. To say Willie is “country” and dismiss him because he delves into some honky-tonk and twang fairly frequently is a grave mistake. Like so many newer artists who try and blend several different genres into one cohesive whole in an attempt to get a bigger audience, Willie does so solely based on his dedication to the craft. Consider his Stardust where he tackles jazz standards like “All of Me” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (doing them quite well, I might add). When’s the last time a “country” artist did that?
Teatro is no different. While Latin-based, he never attempts to sing in Spanish. While his voice sounds country, he’s not particularly singing country. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau even stops in to accompany Willie’s vocals on “Home Motel”, one of the most poignant pieces on the album. Pour all those ingredients into a big mixing bowl, stir rapidly and you have the cornucopia of sounds that make up the album. It defies classification, yet invites radio-weary listeners with open arms.
Favorites are hard to come by on a masterpiece, but some songs definitely linger longer than others, as is the case with “I Just Can’t Let You Say Good-bye”. Sounds like the parting words of a lover, perhaps? Well, they are, I suppose, but in a different sense than one would expect. Consider this bit of lyrics:
What force behind your evil mind
Can make your lips speak so unkind
To one who loves you as much as I
I just can’t let you say goodbye
The flesh around your throat is pale
Indented by my fingernails
Please don’t scream please don’t cry
I just can’t let you say goodbye
Willie pulls it off as a sad, slow love song — spooky, yet oddly quaint, considering the subject matter. Other equally memorable songs include: “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and “The Maker”. He’s at his best when his pleasingly nasal half-drawl is allowed to shine — when he’s half-singing and half-speaking — that Willie is at his most endearing. Endearing? Yes. Endearing.
A Reawakening of the Senses is the Sweetest of All
I was still on my Teatro high when Willie casually walked out onstage and picked up his guitar two years ago in February. From the third row, I could tell his photographs didn’t lie at all — if anything, they were a bit kinder to his grizzled, wrinkly appearance. His braids were probably a bit longer than I’d remembered and he had this lost look on his face like he wasn’t exactly sure where he was (too many joints will do that to a guy). Willie sort of half-smiled and gave the sold-out audience a two-hour performance that spanned his long and still-thriving career. The crowd, in turn, thundered out their approval in applause and a standing ovation.
My favorite 10 minutes or so of the night? Well, it wasn’t “Railroad Lady”. Backed by his sister Bobbie on the Wurlitzer — but with the too-apparent absence of Harris — Willie gave the crowd two Teatro selections: “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?” and “I Never Cared for You”. I could have left after those songs alone and been fully satisfied.
Now the only warbling I hear isn’t from my own prepubescent voice. I let the expert do his thing and leave it at that.