Wash Me Away….Willie Nelson

Sometimes the moments just ripple… lap in at the shoreline, and then fall away. When you learn that you can't hold them anywhere but your memory, you learn to sink into the beauty of a few seconds completely. And so it was somewhere south of Nashville that Willie Nelson did what he does best: pour that quivering tenor that reeks of turpentine on fence planks, liquid heartstrings and vulnerability steeped with dignity over songs that're almost as good as he is. Because when you're one of the truest stylists of modern American music, it's hard to find songs that can meet your gift square on. Kenny Chesney is an unlikely source of inspiration. Big time newest wave country star who's tearing up the country charts, melting the concert trail and setting every record set on fire. That someone who blows it up as loud and ferociously would be the last guy you'd think of to tenderly minister to Willie Nelson's tremulous haiku vocal sensibility -- and yet, there are few who hold the Texas treasure in such high esteem and deep understanding. Willie Nelson is a reason to believe in how much can be said between the notes… the way he pauses, collects the sentiment without even seeming to think about it… Willie Nelson is the master of slight of breath… He takes your hand, your thought, your soul without you even realizing how he's elevated your very being before the next word is delivered with an ethereal gravity that defines Nelson's gift. Not that Willie Nelson ever set out to be Buddha. No, that just happened -- based on a clarity that transcends judging. Willie Nelson is able to embrace the world as it comes, always present, always there, yet not weighed down by the need to weigh in. But in that quiet, storms seethe… and rage… and resolve. Farm Aid, trying to make sure the American family doesn't go the way of the buffalo, and a way of life that is what this country is supposed to be about -- more than profit margins, chemicals to maximize growth and eradicate nutritional value. Bio-Willie, to heighten awareness and raise consumption of ecologically sounder fuel sources in a world of Hummers and SUVs as a means of expressing how great thou art (screw the rest of you poor slobs in your compact cars). Willie Nelson just is. Like water. Still. Imperturbable. Cool. Much swirls around him. All that motion, yet the tranquility emanating from the man who is a hank of tobacco, a bit of sinew and raw fiber is palpable. So it is, with the musicians scattered around big room -- each in their assigned area, yet instrumental parts weightlessly rising and mingling and merging like wafts of smoke effortlessly climbing towards the chandeliers. There is reverence for sure; this is holy work. The lunging back and forth of the parts, the rising and falling of emphasis as the band moves through a collection of jewels from the best of the Great American Songbook. Kristofferson. Dylan. Randy Newman. Guy Clark. Dave Matthews… Kenny Chesney understands about songs. He grew up eating meat'n'three lunches as a young Music City hopeful, starving for the wisdom of the elderest vintage songwriters -- Whitey Shafer, Dean Dillon, Bill Anderson -- as he was for the three side dishes that rounded out those meals. Kenny Chesney also grew up on Willie Nelson, hanging on to the way those notes would hold suspended in the air with no means of support, yet do things more obviously muscular singers couldn't. The Red Headed Strangers' talent wasn't so much about riding the trends, but floating above them… oblivious to how the wind blew and maintaining a sense of zen beauty to even his raucous clips of music-making. “Whiskey River” bumped and thumped and throttled… “Stay All Night” cooked with a certain good-timing rambunctiousness… Even the clambering “Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” had a certain manifesto manifest that made it more than a cautionary flex. That was the beauty of Willie Nelson -- he could haunt you even in the tempest. And then there were the ballads. “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” “Blood Mary Morning.” “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning,” “Always On My Mind.” “Seven Spanish Angels” with the spirit-stirring Ray Charles and “Pancho & Lefty” with working man honky tonk poet Merle Haggard. When that's the Willie Nelson you're raised on, you're gonna pick your songs with care. You're gonna wanna maintain a standard of grace and feeling that stands apart. You wanna bring your very best game: both in terms of what you stand up for and how you wrap the gift that is a Willie Nelson record that matters. It's tricky fare, recording Willie Nelson. With that voice and that sense of timing, the delivery that stretches out lines beyond reason, or clips through what seems to be a slow ride, he transforms what was written and turns it into something more. Gifts like that make song selection deceptive. Anything will sound good… even lackluster or average. It is about finding the songs that allow the gift to be more instead of the other way… and it means paying attention rather than becoming intoxicated by the highwayman's ability of distraction that is what pours from the elder statesman's mouth. Sometimes it means forgetting the rules. Thinking outside the box and coloring outside the lines. It's about embracing the obvious, too, the things that've been discarded because, well, it's been done. And it can also entail taking on the writers you know to be good, to trade in the mainstream, but to mine the jewels that fall closer to the banks than the middle. Kenny Chesney, a fan of music of all kinds, is uniquely suited to the job. As new fangled as the multiple Entertainer of the Year may be, he is old school when it comes to country music. Old school enough, too, to know how to make the oddest candidates resonate like jukebox tears wept back when it was vinyl skipping because the dance floor got too full. In that strange alchemy, though, the best of what makes Willie Nelson special emerges before you even know what's happened. It is in that louche slouch of the mind-altering stress melter “Worry Be Gone” that slinks with an almost marching band beat and the wafting bacon-in-the-air pungency of longtime Family member Mickey Raphael's harmonica. As good as the laconic track is -- and it's a week in the Jamaican sun poured all molasses and cane syrup thick over the laidback shuffle -- Willie Nelson turns it into an instant vacation. Just exhaling the melody, cresting along on the waves of acoustic notes, it's a cork on the ocean -- bobbing up and down light'n'easy. Willie Nelson doesn't need any more than that to find the solvent for the turmoil, the torqued up mess and the gridlock that's somehow encroached upon his piece of mind. Politicians, sad songs, people not treating each other right, not to mention tv, dumb celebrities and the rest of the list can all just be damned, this is about release and relief, not stringing oneself up on a laundry line to stuff that's beyond one's reach and ability to do something about. The best singers wear songs like their most broken in clothes: flannel shirts, old leather boots, jeans that mold and fold to one's backside. When it's that natural, you don't even notice what someone's wearing -- just how good they look, and you can't help but be drawn to them. So it is on the sorrowful, yet sinewy “Gravedigger,” the darkly inviting yet foreboding force of melody from Dave Matthews. In Nelson's supple throat, it's almost an exhortation -- “dig my grave shallow, so I can feel the rain,” he bluesmoans -- a challenge and an embrace of something so dark and yet so inevitable, fear can't be a factor. Standing it down, Nelson opens up a whole other sense of the future. It is what it is. Something to respect, but not to live in response to. Caution, yes, bondage by way of mortality, no. Just as “Moment of Forever” is less about the pain of what happens when it fails then the revel of what there is in the most euphoric moments. Kris Kristofferson knows how to sow details as a way to anchor the elusive nuances of emotions… the little things that invest what in so many others' hands is mere cliché. When Nelson celebrates what's worth surviving the pain for, love becomes noble rather than doomed. The glory of connection so alive, so vital, so revelatory, that the singe of one's wings which is as likely as the transcendence of “making it,” one gets the feeling there's no real risk involved. Hearing that song sung so well, it's the moment of definition… a chance to feel more alive for four minutes than most of us do in a year. Willie Nelson isn't just a sorcerer, he is a witness to life lived in full, wholly inhabited and absolutely taken full frontal. One of the reasons “Moment of Forever” works is because Nelson has obviously loved that deeply, that fiercely, that softly, that completely consumed. That he gets to feel that way at all -- even for a matter of moments -- is exactly what we should hope for. Sustainability is obviously desired, but not required. A taste is enough to know it's real. Confirmation, the sensation, can sustain one as they journey through the vastness -- because it's in knowing that one can swing freely. There is much that can be said about these sessions… much to remember about the things that matter when it comes to make music. The notion of camaraderie and laughter.. the idea that the instruments will push each other on, inspire magic and even silence when necessary… the dynamics of building and ebbing… and especially that simple works incredibly well when you're dealing with the best of everything. Paul Craft's “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” a centerpiece of Linda Ronstadt's seminal mid-70's Heart Like A Wheel, takes on a genuine pathos in its lean, almost tumbleweed barren performance. To hear Willie Nelson intone, “Lord, if you're listenin'/ I know I'm no Christian… and I ain't go no money, I know…” is to genuflect at the altar of blind faith in the human wasteland -- because as the chorus moves on, the faithless recognizes belief may be the only chance there is. Chance as something that isn't random, but rather as an opportunity is something Willie Nelson knows too well. No matter what has befallen him -- from being sewn into a bed sheet and beaten with a broomstick, selling “Family Bible” for $50 and thinking it a fair trade “because my family was hungry, and that bought us groceries…” in the moment rather than being embittered about the lost publishing, the IRS snafu in the early 90s, the occasional arrest for counterculture proclivities -- there is always another day, another side of the question… That other side seems to inspire him. Willie Nelson & Family played 132 cities this year alone -- and he'll start 2007 off in Amsterdam. The world spins, the man makes music with a gut string guitar with a pick-nicked hole beneath the pickguard. It is that passion for songs, the road, the fans who keeps him ablaze, questing for the next great performance… and showing the jam bands how easy it is to be real. Being real grounds the man who is a legend in ways that make him everybody's friend. Easy in his walk through the world, eyes crinkling in the warmest of smiles, he is a witness to all that goes by, yet he's also quick to embrace people from a welcoming place. But that doesn't mean he's easily spun. To that end, the man with the almost waist-length ponytail trailing down his back can embrace a 30 year old song and find a deeper truth in it -- one that illuminates modern problems in very concise, yet direct ways. “Louisiana (1927)” is a Randy Newman song about the flood that engulfed New Orleans early in the 20th century, It is now prophetic in the grandest ways - right down to the verse about the government man who blows in, proclaims it a shame and then moves on without looking back. The song is very much post-Katrina New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana and Mississippi -- and Nelson's quietly ruminative interpretation is as melancholy as you'd expect. Listening to the piano gliding up, Raphael's harmonica bleating in a mournful, desolate moan, it is a prayer for grace, relief, hope.. It sweeps you away, the notion of the Pontchatrain River swollen, swallowing an entire city whole -- you can almost see it when you close your eyes and Nelson twists the notes with honest pain and helplessness about the situation. It is Spanish moss scraping waters as high as the oaks and cypress trees that grow tall and spread broad throughout that most fetid of states… and in the slow, steamy arrangement, one can feel that thick, muddy water rising well past the point of reason. That would be enough. But that is not all. No, no. When Nelson gets to the repeated “They're trying to wash us away,” it's not so much about the toll of the rains and the bloated rivers, as it is the government's willingness to let these communities drown. The flooding becomes a means to wipe away these poor and struggling places -- a clean slate where poverty once stood, never mind the lives and people and families destroyed in this solution of neglect labeled “an act of God.” Willie Nelson is nobody's fool. Nor is he ready to be anyone's God. But he misses nothing, and when he tackles that line, his cognizance seeps through He recognizes that the solution as delivered may well be about an unspoken reality -- and his interpretation puts a light on the true bottomline of motivation for a government that just couldn't get it together in a way that offered real help or meaningful answers. He -- like Chesney -- is a real person's populist. His revered status has never eradicated his feeling for common people, but he also is wise enough to realize that his celebrity means that he can heard in ways most of the unseen people can't. He brings his gift to boil in a way that gives art an added truth… a truth that illuminates that which the powers that be would prefer obscured, offering the overlooked a voice for their truth, too. Thankfully, he does it from high enough ground, his witness is unassailable. When Willie Nelson turns his heart inside out, there is nothing more chilling. The level of bare revelation is riveting… and here it is about the unseen American populace, reduced to grids, columns, stats and gross generalizations being given their due rather than written off by what's convenient for the powers-that-be. It would be easy to call “Louisiana” a lament, but it is far more emboldened. An elegy if what is happening can not be turned around, perhaps; certainly a cautionary song rendered with a sadness that indicts the innate greed of the haves in the face of a genuine disaster. Yet for all the reckoning, this is not preachy. It is almost straight reportage of how it is -- right from the banks of the devastation. It is a great, big round truth that can swallow the moment completely and absolutely, and in that, the seeds of solving the problem are available to be sown. That's the beauty of sitting, knees to chest listening to playbacks… The compassion and kindness floats to the top. You can feel how moving this performance is -- and marvel at a song's capacity to carry so much emotion in such tiny dimensions -- a few minutes, 10 notes, some musical instruments. Kenny Chesney gets that, too. It's not about how much you glop on, but more how much it can make you feel. In a world where the truth is often measured out in drops, the more concentrated it can be, the more potent its message. Sometimes, you just play the song… You let the singer sing. But perhaps as importantly, you find material that is worthy, seek out the licks and riffs that best support that vocal performance, give it plenty of room to stretch out and breathe. It's a simple thing, but you gotta understand what you're trying to do to embrace that notion. After all, in most instances, it's faster, harder, shinier, glossier, slicker, more -- or so they think. Willie Nelson is the greater reality, though. For him, it's simpler, clearer, easier. Let the voice and the heart do the work… find the songs that live up to it… get out of the way… know when enough is plenty… recognize magic when it happens… laugh more than you ever have… believe in what stands out rather than second guessing. It takes one to know one… to celebrate one… to push one, even as you recognize how great the basic self is. Kenny Chesney and Willie Nelson are in many ways odd bedfellows, yet listening to the songs rolling out of the studio's monitors, they make more sense than just about anything anyone's heard coming out of Nashville in years.
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