The apparently indestructible Texan and Southerner Willie Hugh Nelson, born April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, has gained his eighty-eighth birthday. To mark the occasion, there has been and will be quite some doings down in Luck, Texas, his seven-hundred-acre townlet-ranch/recording studio/bio-diesel-and-cannabis HQ in the Hill Country. But a deeper sort of salute is in order. The octogenarian has been producing his special brand of shoot-from-the-hip outlaw country/jazz fusion for so long that we’ve simply come to expect that each year will bring another Nelson album. Are the azaleas showing yet? Then Willie should be along just any minute now with another LP.
As Willie’s millions of fans are aware, his 2021 record That’s Life—his second album-length tribute to one of his prime heroes and influences, Frank Sinatra, dropped back in February. Yep, that’s right: The platinum-selling country artist and seriously jazzy guitar picker counts not just Sinatra but also—as scholars and aficionadi of all things Willie can testify—the jazz giants Django Reinhardt and Louis Armstrong among his chief musical forefathers. It makes perfect sense. It’s why Willie’s first Sinatra tribute album, My Way (2018); his pop standard albums, including the iconic Stardust (1978); his Armstrong tribute, What A Wonderful World (1988); his tribute to the Gershwins, Summertime (2016); as well as his jazz instrumental album in tribute to Django, got cut.
We can be forgiven for thinking of Willie as a country, or even as a “Texas” musician. He is all of that, of course, but his creativity, his tastes, and his guitar chops are just too restlessly protean to have been cubbyholed at any time in his life. Speaking of the history of the Texas range, Willie is, musically speaking, pre–barbed wire. There are no fences built into his pickin’ fingers or his mind.
Biographically speaking, that was his problem with the Nashville producers during what we might call his “first” career in Music City in the sixties—they tried to swathe him in lush string arrangements, slicking his hair back in a pomp and putting him in a regulation jacket and tie, but none of that artifice really worked. Willie was just way too “Willie” for the folderol.
Having simply stopped off in Nashville to sell a couple of songs, by 1964, Willie nevertheless attained success—he was a member in good standing of the Grand Ole Opry and he’d already written the century-spanning hit “Crazy” (Willie’s demo tape of which Patsy Cline’s husband, Charlie Dick, instantly took to his wife, who promptly agreed to record it). But Nelson didn’t fit into the Nashville of the 1950s and 1960s for a different, more radical literary and musical set of reasons. Put specifically, “Crazy” transcends its accidental genre of country because, at bottom, it isn’t a country song. It’s a Willie Nelson song.
With apologies to all of Willie’s pure-country fans whose blood may well be boiling now, this simply means that Nelson writes songs that may sound “country,” in one way or another—they may give a nod to a Texas waltz or a recognizable blues progression or a stately God-fearing hymn—but in his hands, on vinyl or on the stage, they then become that most exalted form of the American songbook, open to brilliant interpretation by myriad artists from myriad disciplines. Over his nine decades and counting, Willie Nelson’s musical arc is as grand and sweeping as it is because, like the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstrong, Harold Arlen, or Rodgers and Hart, whose work he so lovingly covers and quotes, Willie Nelson writes American standards.
He’s also a ferociously loyal, ornery-ass old cowboy, and on his birthday, we’re grateful to him for that, too. He carries his best songs with him forever, he just simply will not lose them, improvising and deepening his relationship with them like a set of old friends. The paradigmatic composition, which also serves as an early statement of Nelson’s infamous “outlaw” status, is the brilliant love song “I Never Cared for You.” Everything about Nelson is in this work, beginning with his long guitar improvisation, effortlessly quoting Django, flamenco riffs, and, if you listen hard, certain formal classical transcriptions of Bach by Andres Segovia. Nelson’s battle-worn Martin classical N20, with its big broad fretboard, named for Roy Rogers’s horse Trigger, helps this furious solo along by being an American cousin to the Spanish guitars.
But it’s the dramatic structure of “I Never Cared for You” that gives it the power to have become a standard. The song is an attempt by its narrator to tell his mistrustful beloved that he knows she won’t believe a thing he says, thus he will tell her he loves her by saying the opposite, so that she will disbelieve that. The refrain says it all, with winning bleakness:
The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all
And the sky was never blue
The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall
And I never cared for you.
The song is more than a little majestically Shakespearean—it could be sung to Kate in The Taming of the Shrew with zero changes to the lyric, and it will effortlessly stand up in the American songbook for the next few hundred years. Needless to say, this dark, brainy, loving, tragic, and ironic joust—more at a Hoagy Carmichael/Cole Porter level—was widely hated in early-sixties Nashville, and promptly tanked. Nelson wasn’t bothered. He carried the song with him. Backed by Emmylou Harris, it soars brilliantly in his hands on his 1998 album Teatro, produced by Daniel Lanois.
For some years, Nelson’s face has been that of a rogue president somehow missing from Mount Rushmore, big beak, cheeks all crag and fissure, framed by the long Plains Indians braids. His voice now carries a whiff of tremor that can still be mastered to open clearly, and that back and forth between the tremor and the old broad flat rocky path of his younger voice brings an extra dividend of countrified hurt into the recent ballads. His command as he sings is peerless, and his picking only grows sharper and more deep. For six decades, his athletic discipline has been martial arts, kung fu since the sixties in Nashville, and he’s now a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do, a rarity among the octogenarian set.
He makes all the mastery seem like it could be an offhand cowboy thing, but pretty much everything Willie Nelson does is rare, and he is among us. At his eighty-eighth, that is worth celebrating.
The Great American Legacy of Willie Nelson – Garden & Gun is written by Dacey Orr for gardenandgun.com