Hey you guys,
As my colleague Noel Murray wrote in a recent Popless entry Willie Nelson, along with the Sainted Johnny Cash, is one of the few country icons it's cool for just about everybody to like. Yet Nelson is in some ways a victim of his own image.
So the respected singer-songwriter side of Nelson has to compete in the public imagination with Nelson the walking pot joke, Nelson the walking IRS joke and Nelson the guy who cashes an easy paycheck popping up in Jessica Simpson movies. It doesn't help that some of Nelson's biggest hits double as his worst songs. If a hilarious, Randy Newmanesque number like "Shotgun Willie" were as big a hit as the cheesefest that is "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" I imagine that his image might be just a little bit different.
I've always liked Nelson in theory and in practice but I gained a new appreciation for him listening to some leftover promo copies of his four-disc box set One Hell Of A Ride. That reggae album he released a few years back doesn't seem quite so ridiculous or incongruous when you consider that Nelson has tried his hand at just about every other musical idiom, from standards to gospel to pop to folk to blues and Western Swing. Just about the only genre Nelson hasn't explored is Crunk and if Li'l Jon shows up at his house with a giant bag of weed and a hefty paycheck he might give that a whirl as well. Nelson's eclecticism is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Perhaps no song on One Hell Of A Ride better illustrates Nelson's ability to bring together seemingly disparate, if not downright antithetical, mindsets or imbue a hackneyed concept with honesty and visceral emotion better than "The Troublemaker". Like much of Nelson's oeuvre much of the song's charm lies in its stripped-down, unadorned simplicity.
In it Nelson sings wistfully of a no-good hippie type respectable folks feel nothing but contempt towards. He wears his hair too long, runs with a sketchy crowd and has little use for the establishment, military or conventional jobs. In the song's haunting final verse Nelson notes sadly of the song's subjects that "They arrested him last week and found him guilty/And sentenced him to die but that's no loss/Friday they will take him to a place called Calvary/And hang that troublemaker to a cross".
It's a fairly corny, familiar conceit–comparing the anti-authority rebellion of hippies and non-conformists with the anti-authority rebellion of Jesus–but I'm not too proud to concede that it made me tear up a little bit the first time I heard it. And by "tear up a little" I of course mean "wept openly like a total fucking pussy". Though Nelson didn't write the song it sums up much of what I find so inspiring about Nelson.
In a world of wildly divisive musicians, where pop-cultural battle lines are drawn and re-drawn constantly, even arbitrarily, Nelson is a rare unifying figure. He's a singer of hillbilly songs and a longtime supporter of progressive causes. He's a drinker and a pothead, a hero to trust fund kids and the Wal-Mart contingent. He can pour his heart and soul into an old-time gospel song then follow it up with an irreverent drinking anthem.
He smoked pot on the roof of Jimmy Carter's White House and battled the IRS. As if to prove my point, One Hell Of A Ride is the number two seller on Amazon in both the "Outlaw And Progressive" and "Traditional" Country categories. And it's only thirty bucks. A real bargain. One Hell Of A Ride gave me a serious jones to delve deeper into the great unifier. What do you all recommend I check out next in terms of Nelson's oeuvre?