The Unflashiest

At 65, Willie Nelson is an icon. His headband-and-pigtails could be trademarked if it was in him to bother, and neither his IRS run-in nor his adventures in the marijuana trade will stop the man who toked up on the roof of Carter's White House from receiving his Kennedy Center honor this December— no doubt with more enthusiasm than his immediate predecessor in this modestly countercultural coup, his longtime Columbia labelmate Bob Dylan. However suspect, this analogy goes a long way. True, Dylan was promulgating his songs as a youthcult avatar while the older man still hewed to the Nashville system of selling "Four Walls" to Faron Young and "Crazy" to Patsy Cline, finally cracking the hit parade with a cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" after 15 years of major publishing bucks and failed record deals. But as Nelson entertained a solidly middle-class crowd at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center last month, what came clear was the overriding link between these two great American songwriters: both now earn their livings, and find reason for living, as road musicians. Maybe if Nelson has a near-death experience someone will notice.

The irritation in my tone is not meant to imply that Dylan is unworthy. On some objective level, he's probably more "important" than Nelson. But not by much— they're both titans, definitely in the same league. Live and on record, I've gotten even more from Willie than from a resurgent Bob in recent years. So I'm impatient with the cultural politics that transform one icon into a symbol of eternal life and the other into a has-been. Admittedly, I was long derelict myself— until the 1996 Supper Club gig timed to his finest recent album, the Island debut, Spirit, I'd never seen Nelson, and so was astonished by what was in many respects a standard set. An hour in, figuring he was about done, I chortled to my wife that he was going to exit without playing one song from the record he was supposedly promoting. Just then he ambled into an instrumental I dimly recognized: the lead cut from Spirit, which he proceeded to run through in its entirety and in order. Then he went on as usual. All told, Nelson and his companionable little four-piece played for two hours and 40 minutes that night, performing some 52 songs. It was wonderful. It was also, as I told my diary, "the unflashiest music I've ever seen in my life."

Understandably, the standard bios all strike the same chords: Nashville and then outlawism, annual Fourth of July shindig and then Farm Aid, concept albums and then off-the-cuff collaborations, the unplanned windfall of his 1978 classic-pop masterpiece, Stardust. Whether or not they note Nelson's stint on bass for Ray Price (taught himself overnight, the Virgin Encyclopedia adds), all they have to say about his guitar is that he plays one. They talk up his "starker, more modern" writing, so much "more complex technically than the usual country tune," while treading gingerly around the "weatherbeaten directness" of his "parched, grainy" or "dry, wry voice." But in concert it's different.

Ebet Roberts
Willie Nelson, living icon
Ebet Roberts

The first thing you notice is that he's some guitarist. Famously, at least to his fans, his customized Martin has two holes, one cut by the luthier, the other worn in by his pick. Its sound is resonantly gorgeous, and the chords he gets from it have no like in country— he has a way of timing a dissonant comp so that the beat stumbles in a precise-seeming parallel to the chord's harmonic effect. His single lines are just as adroit and unpredictable, and once you acclimate to his musicianship, you start really hearing his singing, which beyond all that parched stuff is loud, flexible, strong. Nelson's midrange is so nasal that it diverts attention from his phenomenal breath control, and though he doesn't lift into high tenor as readily as when he was 40, he still glides at will into a powerful baritone that locates the true source of his voice deep in his thorax. What makes this harder to remember is that his records hardly seem sung at all— they register as half-spoken. Like all his music, the off-beat phrasing and talky melodic alterations that pigeonholed him as uncommercial until he fled Nashville in 1970 are distantly informed by jazz, but the effect he intends is antivirtuosic. He's going for the intimate clarity of one-on-one conversation.

That's the secret of his unflash: he's an adept of the natural. Amazingly, the band that backed him in Newark— guitarist-vocalist Jody Payne, harmonica heartthrob Mickey Raphael, bass man Bee Spears, percussionist Billy English, drummer Paul English (his kit a snare on a packing case), and older sister Bobbie Nelson playing piano as if she'd learned from the saloon scenes in a hundred westerns, although in fact she doodles Mozart in her spare time— has been with him since 1972. These are not the crack shots Dylan likes to hire— they're just Willie's friends, and 150 nights a year they play together like water seeking its own level. They were on for two hours and 38 songs— one every three minutes, bang bang bang. Both nights the simplicity of the presentation had a devotional aura. Not that there was anything mystical or sanctimonious about a bunch of old buddies playing a bunch of old songs. But in an artist who willingly keyed 1981's Somewhere Over the Rainbow to E.Y. Harburg's dreamy kitsch and 1993's Don Was-produced showcase Across the Borderline to Paul Simon's filigreed "American Tune," the basic-English literalness of the set list amounted to a statement of aesthetic principle— or at least entertainment strategy. In Newark, Nelson's mostly instrumental Cole Porter selection was the elegantly laconic "Night and Day." "City of New Orleans" and "Pancho and Lefty" seemed positively Shakespearian in their narrative detail.

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