Willie Nelson

by Joe Nick Patoski

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Chet Flippo

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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 amount of history in what I think is his best work—his three "concept" or storytelling albums. The first, the early-Seventies Yesterday's Wine, is an obscure masterpiece. Wine was so far beyond anything out of Nashville that RCA was befuddled by it….

[Phases and Stages] was a compassionate account of a failing marriage, told from both the man's and woman's points of view. (p. 46)

Viewed in retrospect, his body of songs is remarkable, a unified world of transgression and redemption, human suffering and compassion and joy, all told by an anonymous Everyman. "Willie understands," is the most-heard quote from his fans.

There is really no one to compare him to, for his songs and his style are bafflingly unique. Take a fairly obscure one: "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye," written in 1965, is the only song I know about strangling one's lover. No wonder Nashville didn't know what to do with him. Some of the lyrics:

           The flesh around your throat is pale
           Indented by my fingernails
           Please don't scream, please don't cry
           I just can't let you say goodbye.

Much of his earlier work is equally bleak: "Opportunity to Cry" is about suicide, "Darkness on the Face of the Earth" is a stark and frightening song about absolute loneliness, "I've Got a Wonderful Future behind Me" means just what it says. Some of Willie's best misery songs, written during his drinking days of the Fifties and Sixties, were inspired by his past marriages…. Most Nashville songwriters were content with simple crying-in-my-beer songs, while Nelson was crafting his two-and-a-half-minute psychological dramas. His characters were buffeted by forces beyond their control, but they accepted their fates with stolid resignation, as in "One Day at a Time":

            I live one day at a time
            I dream one dream at a time
            Yesterday's dead and tomorrow is blind
            And I live one day at a time.
                                          (p. 47)

Chet Flippo, "The Saga of Willie Nelson," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1978; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 269, July 13, 1978, pp. 45-8.

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