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Nelson has cut lots of rock material, but "City of New Orleans" is as close as I've seen him get live; although he has a Jamaican album in the can and correctly credits producer Booker T. Jones as the hidden genius of Stardust, the only African American song he performed (both nights) was Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues." "What I do for a living is to get people to feeling good," he declares on the jacket of his out-of-print autobiography, and this he achieves with instantly recognizable country and pop touchstones whose meaning can't be mistaken: "All of Me" and "Blue Skies," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and "Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms," "Working Man Blues" and "Georgia on My Mind." If other people's copyrights outnumbered Nelson's two-to-one at his shows, the model for their simplicity was still the bare-bones diction and subtle musicality of "Crazy" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," of "Night Life" and "Me and Paul," and of Spirit, an album buoyed by new songs, suffused with his guitar, and defined by a drumless variant of his road band.
It is widely believed by people who've barely listened to Nelson's '90s albums and in part because he's bedded down with at least six labels since Columbia left him in 1993, this clueless group includes almost everyone outside his fan club that they aren't much good. But in fact the quality has picked up plenty since that played-out relationship ended. Nelson will never write a "Funny How Time Slips Away" again, but neither will anyone else. In fact, most would be happy to match the rejects he pulled out of a steamer trunk for the new Daniel Lanois- produced showcase, Teatro, especially the infinitely hummable "Everywhere I Go," which celebrates either a memory or a harmonica. And on Spirit, the likes of "I'm Not Trying To Forget You Anymore" and "Too Sick To Pray" break Nelson's New Age-ish vow to abjure songs "that can put you into a self-perpetuating mood of negative thinking" only to be turned around by the likes of "I Guess I've Come To Live Here in Your Eyes" and the inspirational "We Don't Run," performed at the Supper Club as a sing-along devoid of all exhortation and cheerleading. Spiritcertainly deserves canonical status as much as the overinflated Red Headed Stranger.
And to get down to cases, I also prefer it to another artist's Daniel Lanois-produced showcase: Time Out of Mind. Because if Bob Dylan seeks to capture what Greil Marcus has dubbed "the old, weird America," then Willie Nelson is after the enduring, commonplace America. One is as great a mystery as the other.
You'd figure the greatest Willie Nelson record has strings all over it. But instead, 1978's definitive Tin Pan Alley resuscitation, Stardust (now available straight up or as a luscious audiophile CD), relies on the subtlest organ Booker T. has ever played, several hotshots, and the same road band that lives and breathes Willie two decades later. The jazzier Somewhere Over the Rainbowis the runner-up in this vein, but before you invest, access his inconsistent, ill-preserved Columbia output via the three-CD Revolutions of Time 60 tracks that do right by Nelson-on-Columbia's panoply of conceptual tactics and commercial calculations.
These come to a head on his label farewell, the inspired yet mannered Don Was cameofest Across the Borderline. Like such deleted Columbia oddments as Me and Pauland the Hank Snow vehicle Brand on My Heart, Spirit recreates the naturalness Nelson achieves live as no live album can (cf. disc two of Rhino's obscurantist box). For all Daniel Lanois's aural affectations and pet drummers, the new Teatro gestures honorably at the same feel, although Justice's 1995 Just One Love, an old-fashioned country record produced by sometime Nelson guitarist Grady Martin and featuring Austin songbird Kimmie Rodgers, is sure more fun. Atlantic's 1974 Phases and Stages remains the most coherent of his concept albums. Rhino's Nite Life and (less undeniably) RCA's Essential Willie Nelson offer generic Nashville stylings of a catalog now so classic it renders off-the-rack arrangements becoming, while Kingfisher/Ichiban's I Let My Mind Wander stands as the strongest current configuration of Nelson's stark, early, oft-recycled Pamper demos. And Sundown's 1997 Don Cherry collaboration, Augusta, features the singing golfer, not the sainted trumpeter. The title song is about a golf course. Did I mention the golf course Nelson owns? A man of parts, that Willie.