Study Guide

Willie Nelson

by Joe Nick Patoski

Willie Nelson Essay - Critical Essays

Nelson, Willie

Introduction

Willie Nelson 1933–

American songwriter, musician, and actor.

By combining country, blues, gospel, honky-tonk, Western, and Texas swing music, Nelson bridged the gap between country music and rock and roll. It was several years, however, before his synthesis of musical forms gained a place in the popular music industry. For fifteen years Nelson wrote hits for various Nashville singers. But he was in Nashville at a time when the emphasis was on the singer, not the songwriter, and the Nashville sound was smooth and sweet. Because of his rough, dry baritone, Nelson was discouraged from recording in Nashville. He finally left Nashville and moved to Austin, Texas, where his progressive country sound appealed to both rednecks and hard rockers. In Austin, Nelson became the unofficial leader of the "outlaw" movement. The outlaws are considered renegade country artists for refusing to conform to the prevailing country and western standards in their music. Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others later recorded an album called The Outlaws.

Nelson writes his songs in the traditional country and western storytelling format. He has broadened the concept to produce entire albums that relate stories of loss, pain, and redemption. Religion has had a profound effect on Nelson's music and writing style. In his songs, Nelson attempts to deal with human emotions in terms of an implied spiritual unrest. Yesterday's Wine examines the feelings encountered within man's relationship to God. On Phases and Stages the story of a divorce is told first by the woman and then by the man; in these songs, Nelson captures the despair, loneliness, and pain of the two people. Red Headed Stranger, which won a Grammy award in 1975, tells of lost love, adultery, murder, and finally forgiveness. Bob Allen likened it to "a Greek morality play acted out against the metaphors of the old West and the music of Texas.

Nelson does not always use his albums as a vehicle to showcase his own songwriting. Many of his albums, including Stardust and To Lefty from Willie, pay tribute to other songwriters such as Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Lefty Frizzell, and George Gershwin. This practice has led some critics to conclude that Nelson suffers from a severe writer's block. Nelson admits there are times when he feels he has written his last song, but he continues to have new ideas and to write new songs. Nelson was named to the Hall of Fame by the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1973.

Chet Flippo

[Willie Nelson is probably the most underrated songwriter] in America today….

[Nelson] writes about feelings as such, exclusive of the people who possess them…. [His] songs are pensive and sober, understated morning-after reflections when despair comes creeping in. [The Willie Way] opens with "You Left a Long, Long, Time Ago": "Today might be the day you walk away, / But you left me a long, long time ago."

That's followed by "Wonderful Future," equally despairing. "My past and my present are one and the same," his crisp autumn voice intones, "and the future holds nothing for me." Depression is a staple of country blues and no one can beat Willie at that.

Chet Flippo, "Records: 'The Willie Way'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 122, November 23, 1972, pp. 68, 70.

Steve Ditlea

With this flawless album [Shotgun Willie], Willie Nelson finally demonstrates why he has for so long been regarded as a C&W singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter….

There is more to Willie Nelson than the "weepers" for which he is justly known, though nearly half of the songs on this record feature his gift for turning everyday imagery into eloquent expressions of grief and sorrow. "My oatmeal tastes just like confetti," he begins in "So Much to Do" and I immediately feel the disorientation caused by parting. From the satiric undertone of "Sad Songs and Waltzes (Aren't Sellin' This Year)" to the resignation of "She's Not for You," by way of the rhythmic "Local Memory" and the languorous "Slow Down Old World," Nelson uses a varied palette to portray the faces of love gone bad.

Nelson also proves to be a witty caricaturist. "Shotgun Willie" … touches on the agony of impending deadlines, as well as the comic misadventures of an acquaintance who belonged to the KKK.

Steve Ditlea, "Records: 'Shotgun Willie'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 142, August 30, 1973, p. 80.

John Swenson

Ever since he made his first impression in Nashville, Nelson has been a staple in country music, playing around the country in different bands and writing a string of classic songs; many people refer to him reverently as the "Cole Porter of country music." (pp. 24-5)

What Willie Nelson would like to pick up most of all from rock 'n roll is some of the audience, always appreciative of a country musician who can play songs with conviction that reflect the ideals of the musical lifestyle. Nelson's guru-like demeanor crowned with a cowboy hat is a good start in itself, but the honesty in the feeling of his singing and playing make him a country songwriter with instant appeal to a sensitive, curious audience….

Despite his success in the straight country market, many of Nelson's songs have a little too much thought in them for the largely reactionary audience—one of his best tunes deals with the problem of hostility met on the road ["Me and Paul"]. (p. 25)

John Swenson, "A Slice of Night Life from Willie Nelson," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1973 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September, 1973, pp. 24-5.

Chet Flippo

Willie Nelson has written some of the most chilling, bluntly honest portrayals of the anguish of separation and the shock of finding oneself suddenly alone. With [Phases and Stages] Nelson attempts one of the most ambitious country projects ever: a concept album on the subject of breaking up. Ordinarily, concept albums strike me as pretentious bores (someone will call this one "the Sgt. Pepper of C&W," "the shitkicker's Tommy"), but I find Phases and Stages extraordinarily convincing….

["I Still Can't Believe You're Gone"] is without doubt the saddest, most compelling C&W song I've ever heard….

On Phases and Stages, Nelson describes a separation, first from the woman's point of view (side one), then from the man's (side two). Both are true to the milieu in which Nelson works. The woman runs away, finds another, but still wonders; the man loses himself in self-pity and then assumes the facade of honky-tonk bravado. Nelson can make a banal line like "ironing and crying, crying and ironing" say much more than it does on the surface. He seems to understand an unloved woman better than any dozen articles from Ms.: "If guilt is the question / Then truth is the answer / I've been lyin' to me all along." His deceptively simple lyrics fit whole chapters into single lines….

The fact that Nelson can fashion a believable scenario with such sparseness is a tribute to his ability to turn experience into good music.

Chet Flippo, "Honky Tonk Bravado," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 156, March 14, 1974, p. 61.

Paul Nelson

Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled. A phonographic Western movie which brilliantly evokes the mythopoetic imagery of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shane and the works of John Ford, the album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable and not unwarranted synthesis of all he has missed. The narrative may not sound especially promising or unusual—like most fables, it is, after all, the same old story. That is its point—but in Nelson's...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Noel Coppage

[Willie] has, in "Red Headed Stranger" …, combined old, new, borrowed, and blue elements to make himself a horse opera about love and death in the late-early Western United States. It's an adult western, set in 1901, and although it purports to make no large statement about the passing of the frontier for our still westering society, it does suggest how one wild-spirited, trigger-happy fellow accommodated himself to civilized ways. The story line, though, isn't terribly strong or important, and it's really a story, not an "opera," the whole thing related by the narrator, Willie…. Nelson has taken old, familiar songs such as Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain and Remember Me and used them as set...

(The entire section is 216 words.)

Peter Guralnick

The Sound in Your Mind is simply not the cohesive masterpiece that Willie Nelson's last two albums have been. It lacks the breadth, the direct accessibility, the combination of myth and mystery of Red Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages. It marks a quiescent point in the career of a great artist who is still developing. (p. 75)

Peter Guralnick, "Half-Hearted Nelson: Sounds Out of his Mind," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1976; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 214, June 3, 1976, pp. 73, 75.

(The entire section is 83 words.)

Robert Partridge

The magnificent "Red Headed Stranger" was a triumph of the imagination, the first time a country artist has consciously sought to explore the complex relationship between alienation, violence and individual integrity. But Nelson has refused to take similar risks on his new album, "The Sound In Your Mind". This is a collection of honkytonk songs, a bunch of fave-raves presumably meant as a celebration of Texas country music. Yet it lacks total conviction and, without that, the album holds few surprises…. As an affirmation of Nelson's roots, this album is a disappointment; pleasant but ordinary. He even digs into his own past, re-recording "Funny How Time Slips Away", "Crazy" and "Night Life", three of his best songs...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

Chet Flippo

Ten years ago, [Willie Nelson] couldn't even get himself arrested in Nashville, despite the fact that he was the best songwriter to hit Music Row since Hank Williams, the king of them all. Everybody else was having hits with Willie's songs … but Willie's own records went nowhere. Good writer, no singer, said Nashville's establishment.

Now he rules country music. Oddly, the album that brought him the wide audience he now enjoys was not composed entirely by him. He wrote only five of the fifteen cuts on Red Headed Stranger, the brilliant allegorical album that forever changed Nashville's idea of what is and is not country music. (pp. 45-6)

Willie has compressed a fair...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Frye Gaillard

Most of [Nelson's] tear-jerking jukebox ballads are distinctly autobiographical, as are the cuts from an obscure album called Yesterday's Wine….

It's an opera in a way, a sort of rough country equivalent of Jesus Christ Superstar—not so much in its content as in the originality of its approach. It's a concept album, tracing with unabashed theological overtones the ups and downs of a typical life, and revealing in the process a crucial fact about Willie Nelson—that despite his honky-tonking history and fast-paced present, he is about as deeply religious as anyone around.

The revelation is scattered throughout the album but probably is found most clearly in an...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Chet Flippo

There's a remarkable emotional and thematic unity that runs through [Willie Nelson's] entire body of work. As one of the most talented songwriters and song stylists this country has ever known, Nelson has carved out his own special place in American music: the Church of the Honky-Tonk. But no matter how many people have called him a country singer, Willie Nelson is no such thing—he sings spiritual and scary stone-beer-joint blues. Indeed, he's the closest thing to a Ray Charles the white race has yet produced. (p. 87)

That some of his songs were too weird for the country market—songs about a man strangling his lover, for instance—was of no great import. Nashville protects its innocents and...

(The entire section is 605 words.)

Bob Allen

[Willie Nelson's] early recordings contain versions of some of his most enduring compositions, including "Crazy," "Hello Walls," and "Funny How Time Slips Away," proving that he had already matured into a writer of incredible depth. (pp. 92-3)

Already, the lyrics convey the thoughtfulness and sophistication that would mark most of his material throughout his career. In his songs, he grapples with the usual dilemmas of leaving, being left, of pain, anger, jealousy, and sadness. Yet his attempts to deal with these emotions are often expressed in the wider context of an implied spiritual unrest, or a mortal sadness over the sadness over the passage of time. Some of the songs have almost mystic...

(The entire section is 472 words.)