Willie Nelson Frye Gaillard - Essay

Joe Nick Patoski

Frye Gaillard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 uncomplicated song called "It's Not for Me To Understand." This gospel tune tells the story of a man walking past a yard full of children, one of whom is a little blind boy and standing alone and off to one side. The man, who is Nelson, is moved by the scene and demands to know how God could permit such a heartbreaking turn of events. The answer turns out to be [that man is not meant to understand God's ways].

It's a frankly sentimental song, but the humility it contains is the profound and universal variety that comes, Nelson says, when religion sinks in deep. And it can provide, he adds, some pretty stout emotional armor against the vagaries and absurdities of everyday life. (p. 140)

Frye Gaillard, "Putting the Audiences Back Together: Willie Nelson & the Austin Sound," in his Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music (copyright © 1978 by Frye Gaillard), St. Martin's Press, 1978, pp. 128-46.∗