Friday, April 30, 2010

Keep Your Hands Off My Willie!

Our story thus far: The Mysterious Shadowy Figure tires of Jeffy's lolly gagging...and Jeffy likewise the Mysterious Shadowy Figure's!

...And Leave My Red Headed Stranger Alone!

Born April 30, 1933, Willie Nelson turns a happy 77 years old today!

Willie was born in Abbott, Texas and his parents divorced when he and his big sister Bobby were very young. Willie and Bobby lived with and were brought up by their grandparents who taught music and were learning music through a correspondence school, so from the time he could walk he had music as his companion.

Willie was born with the benefit of perfect pitch, and with the nurturing of his grandparents honed this ability. This combined with early childhood exposure to church music, folk and country from the locals and jazz, swing and blues coming in by radio as well as the realization that playing music to make money sure beat working in the fields set him on his way!

I've spoken before in this blog about the number of great song-writers that hail from Texas. The music is one thing (Lightnin' Hopkins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Bob and Johnny Lee Wills, etc.) but there's something about living in a desolate desert region with a horizon that goes on forever, the cultivates the imagination of the lyricist. Something there that can't be learned, I think you have to stumble on it yourself. An imagination which helps keep them sane when growing up and helps them find the key out when they do grow.

I'm sure glad they do grow up and let us in on the joke. A life without the songs of Willie, Waylon, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Butch Hancock, Robert Earl Keen, Kinky Friedman, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and so many others, would be a lot more bleak.

Willie did a stint in the military and returned home to do many jobs. From Radio DJ to door-to-door encyclopedia salesman he did it all while still playing in bands to make ends meet, and writing songs to lighten the load.

After moving to Nashville he hit some success as a songwriter. He sold "Family Bible" to Paul Buskirk, "Crazy" to Patsy Cline, "Night Life" to Ray Price and "Hello Walls" to Faron Young among others. He proved such a solid song smith his label let him record a few albums too.

The albums were a commercial (and if you ask me artistic) flop. You see...even back in the homogeounous 1950's, Willie really was one of a kind. A true artist. The slick Nashville sound, over-orhestrated and over-produced just didn't work for Willie. There was no life in the edge of reality on them. Willie trying to act, dress and sound like everyone else, just ain't Willie.

So he packed his bags when his contract was up and moved back to Texas. If he couldn't make records successfully in Nashville, he knew he could at least play in a band at fairs and in bars and do what he loved.

Then an interesting thing happened. They were called the 1960's.
You were suddenly allowed to act like you needed to act instead of how society told you. Willie got to act and sound like Willie.

His hair grew longer. His suite were replaced by jeans and a t-shirt...and a bandana. And he and his band could not sound like an Owen Bradley Nashville session and sound like music instead AND people would listen!

There was also a great division in this country with the 1960's and early 1970's. Long hairs didn't mix with the rednecks and they couldn't see eye to eye on a damn thing. The Conservatives and the revolutionary Liberals were at war. It was an unhappy and fearful time of "us" versus "them".

One night though in Austin, Texas at "The Armadillo World Headquarters", a night-spot, salloon and dance hall, Willie looked out at the crowd. His crowd. Long-haired hippie types were coming in because the the music moved them. Old redneck good-ol-boys were coming in because the music moved them. They sat next to each other. Shared some beers. Shared the music. And had a good time.

Later Willie organized the first of his Fourth of July Picnics. Headlined by acts as seemingly diverse as Ray Price and Leon Russell, the nay-sayers looked on waiting for it to fail. The morning of the Picnic, Willie looked out over the hill and his crowd started coming. Long hairs in jeans and short hairs in cowboy hats and...well...jeans, all carrying their beer coolers. Side by side they sat down on the grass and heard the music. And nobody got mad at anyone else.

Fuck Woodstock...this is where it REALLY happened!

With new found confidence in the appeal of the music he liked to do, and with the help of his buddy Waylon (who was still in solid with the Nashville record community), Willie did a concept album, "The Red Headed Stranger":

Unlike your standard country music album, this was a concept album. Every song on it strung together and told a story. A story of an old west preacher who's wife cheats on him and leaves him, he finds her and her lover and kills them and finds himself a tarnished man forsaken by God and who has forsaken his God, then follows him through his personal redemption.

Heady stuff!

All recorded with just Willie, his guitar (Trigger) his sister Bobby on piano and a little harmonica here and there, the executives listened apprehensively at Waylon's behest and finally agreed to buy the album. They said the demo sounded fine, go ahead and record it for real.

This stripped down string of songs was no demo. This bare-bones "sounds like Willie and no one else" recording was IT. Begrudgingly the execs agreed to put it out "as is", warning it would be a huge flop.

The thing went Platinum.

Willie was finally on top. An overnight success after just 20 years. And he did it by being Willie and not what people told him he should be.

Willie's been doing it his way ever since. Doing what people said he can't do and being successful at it in spite of them. Willie sings it all. Country, Jazz, Blues, Rock, name it, he does it. He can sing anything he wants, no one even steps back any more.

They's just Willie being Willie.

Enough of my yammering. Here's Willie doing what Willie does, which is be Willie. Very zen if you ask me.

Willie's standard opening, "Bloody Mary Morning" IS and eye-opener after all, why not a concert opener?:

Willie doing the Fred Rose song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"...this was one of the songs on "Red Headed Stranger" that the geniuses in marketing said wouldn't fly:

Willie's classic "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys"...and they have:

One of the best unrequited love songs ever written, "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground":

He's even done a childrens he is singing that Kermit the Frog classic, "Rainbow Connection":

With Ray Charles singing that Hoagy Carmichael evergreen, "Georgia on My Mind":

Playing Johnny Cash's guitar when the string break on "Trigger", he said he originally named this song "Stupid" but changed it because it didn't sound euphonious enough. He was joking, but now I can't hear the song without putting "Stupid" wherever "Crazy" is sung:

I still think Toby Keith is a poser and never thought he'd be mentioned on my blog, but he slid in on the coattails on this one...Willie not singing, but being sung about:

Willie's famous for doing duets. Here he is with Snoop Dogg:

And a nice closer. "Funny How Time Slips Away" with Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Billy Joe Shaver, Mickey Gilley, Porter Wagoner and others just looking on and feeling we all do.:

Thanks Willie! Time does just slip away, but your spirit and music help wash it down! Here's to another 77 years! back to our story!

See Y'all Tomorrow for the Exciting Conclusion!!

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