Nelson finds gold in what’s old

Published January 1, 1999

One of the most common storylines for a song is the shattered loverelationship, and this tendency is even more prevalent in country music. Fewdo it with more consistency, eloquence, and soul-baring honesty than 65-year-oldWillie Nelson.

Nelson has fashioned a career with many artistic, commercial, and personal twists and turns, marked by more than 60 albums of his own and involvement in more than 200 albums since his 1962 debut, And Then I Wrote.

He started out as a songwriter whose own albums did not sell well in the ’60s, became a superstar in the mid ’70s by spearheading the “outlaw” country movement, and has been a prolific elder statesman of the country music scene for the past two decades, blithely ignoring industry trends while remaining true to his art.

That being said, Teatro is Nelson’s best chance at wide commercial success in a long time. Distinctive and prolific Canadian producer Daniel Lanois is at the knobs for this effort. Together with his many mainstream success stories through the years (including production of U2, Peter Gabriel, and Scott Weiland), Lanois has a special knack for invigorating living legends.

Lanois wisely uses his dense, atmospheric signature in a way that is not overwhelming. In short, he does not take the country out of Willie or cloud over Nelson’s distinctive sound. Much as he did for Bob Dylan on the Grammy-winning comeback album Time Out Of Mind, he simply augments the songwriter’s muse – a wry, trademark vocal and intense guitar picking in sync with sister Bobbie’s piano flourishes – with an assortment of instruments: bass harmonica, slide guitars, Wurlitzer keyboards, vibraphones and more.

The presence of Emmylou Harris as a backing vocalist, a stroke of genius on somebody’s part, is icing on the cake.

Teatro sees Nelson continue to mine the rich field of his older material, much as he did on his most recent albums, Just One Love and Spirit. Much of this material was written in the aftermath of the dissolution of his marriage in the late ’60s. Nelson richly covers the gamut of emotions – denial (I Never Cared For You), self-righteousness (My Own Peculiar Way), out-and-out depression (Darkness On the Face of the Earth, Home Motel), and fond recollection (I’ve Loved You All Over the World, Everywhere I Go).

And, as always with Nelson, darkness and light intertwine. I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye is an extreme example, as the jilted lover murders his spurning mate rather than letting her go.

In the midst of the sadness, though, there is the light of faith, and lots of biblical imagery. It is all brought home to roost as Nelson augments an album of material he wrote 30 years ago with a cover of Lanois’ own piece, The Maker.

It’s what one would expect from the enigmatic Nelson, who still often uses Amazing Grace as a pivot point in his concerts. Perhaps Rolling Stone columnist Rob Sheffield put it best when he said Nelson “sounds as though he’s reaching out for salvation with one hand and pressing the snooze button with the other.”

Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.


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