Willie And Family Live
WHILE I DID not question it too deeply at the time, in retrospect the arrival of Jason & the Scorchers in my record collection was head-scratching. Where had this screeching, two wheels in the air turn onto a musical dirt road come from? What was the source of this aberration, this venture into a genre that was considered embarrassingly, disturbingly alien by my peers? There were early Eagles and John Denver cassettes kicking around the house when I was growing up, sure, but you couldn't really call my parents country in any meaningful, musical way, just a product of their life in the 1970s.
Partly to blame for Jason, I divined years later, were summers spent on the white sand Gulf of Mexico beaches of panhandle Florida where the Alabama side of my ancestral tree – and when possible our small branch of that – had been escaping the inland heat of July and August since just after World War II; where uncles Babe and Jimmy built the first-generation breezeblock houses among the dunes and sea oats; a world of intense aquamarine water, screened-in porches with hurricane shutters and bedrooms with leaky, shaking air conditioners hanging in the windows.
In 1980, Willie And Family Live, recorded a few years earlier, provided a summer soundtrack disrupted only by the FM stations blaring a succession of southern rock classics and The Devil Went Down to Georgia by the Charlie Daniels Band, still on heavy rotation more than a year after its release. But more often than not it was the Nelson opus that served as the background to body surfing and beachcombing, building sand castles to populate with lumbering mini-crustaceans called sand fleas (in over-abundance in those days, and known elsewhere in the US as mole crabs and sand fiddlers), fishing in the inlet, donuts hot from the grease at a beachfront shack, late night terrestrial television if the ever-dependable daily thunderstorms hadn’t knocked out the power.
Willie's landmark Lake Tahoe concert was ever-present and accompanied the hum of the cooling system and the buzz of the pool pump on a battery-powered, single-speaker portable player, rather than a boombox of any description, via a pre-recorded cassette. The cheap 'tape' was of the pale plastic, rather than black, variety – a sort of death-pallor lack of tone offset by small lettering detailing the full 29 tracks, one of which was a 14-minute medley featuring a further five songs (one of which is itself another medley . . . you don't see that every day). I have no idea how Columbia jammed all that sound – a double LP in vinyl format, more than an hour and a half of music – onto the matte brown, magnetised gossamer. And clueless as to why it didn't stretch, snap or degrade over that summer, in stark contrast to the ever-fading printed track listings which became first smudged and then slowly disappeared from the centre of the cassette as multiple fingers – wet, salty, sandy, chlorined, suntan lotioned – removed flipped re-inserted, removed flipped re-inserted, removed flipped re-inserted; ad infinitum.
It wasn't even mine. Relatives had brought the tape with them from an exotic and unimaginably different college-town existence thousands of miles away, deep in the Rocky Mountains. From memory, my aunt and her then boyfriend had seen Willie & Co on the tour in question and appeared to be inspired by the mix of traditional music, alcohol and recreational drugs that the release represented to them (and arguably many others) in what felt like the otherwise hollow and culture-lite years of the late 1970s. It was, looking back, part of a wider national rediscovery that was starting to gain traction after originally taking hold in Texas and Tennessee, Califonia and Colorado; a bounceback against popular, and pop, culture.
Unknown to me at the time, the songs were injecting a musical history lesson directly into my early teenage subconscious, an education that would seep outwards decades later – surprise! – but which at the time was simply left to gestate. Little was I aware that the whole timeline of country and roots was woven into that record; that it represented a musical Chautauqua, a traditionalist revivalism where the metaphorical musical equivalents of snake handling and speaking in tongues would not have been out of place, delivered by Willie and Co with a joy and ease that to this day camouflages the depth and universality of what was on offer via honkytonk piano, harmonica, pedal steel, electric and acoustic guitar et al.
Where to start? Here is the 1940s-era Stay A Little Longer from Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Lefty Frizzell's If You've Got The Money (I've Got The Time) from 1950, the now country standard Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys by Ed Bruce from 1975, a spirited and la-la-la accompanied rendering of the Chet Atkins recording of Under The Double Eagle, itself derived from a march composed by Josef Wagner in 1893 and made famous in the US by bandleader John Philip Sousa.
Other classics on the playlist from that 1978 night included Till I Lose Control Again, written by Rodney Crowell, recorded by Emmylou Harris in 1975 on Elite Hotel and subsequently taken to top of the country charts by Crystal Gayle in 1982. Nelson and Co also tackle Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms, a traditional song perhaps best known for the Flatt & Scruggs version from 1951, and Georgia On My Mind written by Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell in 1930. The song was of course covered by Nelson on Stardust, a collection of standards which came out in April 1978 and for which he earned a Grammy award for best male country vocal performance.
We get a bit of religion as well. Here was Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a popular hymn taken into the country repertoire by pioneers The Carter Family in 1935 and recorded by pretty much everybody going from that point onward. Also on the playlist was the 18th century Amazing Grace and 19th century gospel song Uncloudy Day (popularised by The Staple Singers in the 1950s). Emmylou Harris popped along on the night to provide backup vocals on all three tracks.
Johnny Paycheck also showed up on stage in Tahoe to sing background on Amazing Grace and stuck around as second vocals on Take This Job And Shove It, originally written by David Allan Coe but taken to number one on the country charts by Paycheck – real name the far less evocative Donald Eugene Lytle – in 1977.
Willie also dips into his own back catalogue, from the early songwriting years in Texas and Nashville, to play tunes subsequently made famous by others: Funny How Times Slips Away recorded by Billy Walker in 1961, Crazy recorded (of course) by Patsy Cline in 1962, and Hello Walls made famous by Faron Young in 1961. Also performed were highlights from what at the time were his own three-decade career on stage: Night Life, Bloody Mary Morning, I'm A Memory, Mr Record Man, One Day At A Time, I Gotta Get Drunk.
Additional material on the Tahoe playlist included the Leon Russell number A Song For You from 1970, which Nelson made his own on Shotgun Willie in 1973, the album that for many people helped to mark the beginning of Outlaw Country and the emergence of a new centre of gravity outside of the Nashville mainstream. A further cut from that landmark album, Nelson's version of the Johnny Bush masterpiece Whiskey River, appears twice on Willie And Family. Don't ask me why; I’m not complaining.
Willie’s long-running relationship with fellow outlaw pioneer Waylon Jennings is also on show. I Can Get High On You and If You Could Touch Her At All are both from Waylon and Willie from 1978, the latter song written by Lee Clayton and originally recorded by Waylon on his album This Time from 1974, the former an eponymous co-credit. Also featured on the album is Good Hearted Woman, written by Willie and Waylon and first recorded by the latter on a album of the same name in 1972, and Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line, made famous by Jennings in the late 1960s although written by Jimmy Bryant and originally recorded by Jim Alley.
To teenage me, the narrative of the Red Headed Stranger medley was probably the most accessible: 14-plus minutes of cowboy mythology sparsely described across Time of the Preacher, I Couldn't Believe It Was True (writers Eddy Arnold/Wally Fowler), Blue Rock Montana, Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (written by Fred Rose in the 1940s and recorded by artists including Hank Williams, Slim Whitman, Gene Vincent, Hank Snow and Conway Twitty), and Red Headed Stranger itself. The latter was written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz in 1953 and recorded by Arthur 'Guitar Boogie' Smith the following year. Willie built the concept album around the song, which he had also performed on radio show The Western Express in the 1950s.
The studio famously mistook the stripped-down, bare-boards 1975 classic album as a demo version of what would be the final recording; happily Willie had secured artistic control of his output, and so had his way.
Is this live collection Nelson’s best? Probably not, and if you pay attention to some reviewers it is not even close, but for me there was something about the delivery, the feeling, the spirit that fit with that first summer of the 1980s, which in looking back was interwoven with a growing awareness of my own place in the wider culture of that tiny corner of the South, of life beyond the coastal side of Highway 98 back when the now gridlocked 30A was just a crumbling, often eroded strip of asphalt through sand oaks and scrub pines. When there were still rattlesnakes.
I am not, it should be noted, without some significant southern credentials. I have fished (and sometimes even caught) reds, specks, pompano and stump knockers, shouted for Auburn at Jordan-Hare and witnessed Hank Aaron hit a baseball at the old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. I have been stripped naked by my quick-thinking grandmother after tangling with a waist-high nest of fire ants, bought multiple pounds of shack-smoked barbeque from an impossibly large man in a welder’s apron, ridden out – and also evacuated from – a hurricane, and know that the best tomatoes in the world can be found at roadside stands. I used to drive a two-tone longbed Ford 150 with dual fuel tanks and a flyrod in the back window where most people keep their rifle.
My father's family has long been rooted in the Black Belt of central Alabama. The other side of the family tree was planted in rural Texas, behind the so-called pine curtain and also across the south and west of the state. Both branches produced fruit that fell far from the tree, in my dad's case via the cultural leveller of two generations of military service and related frequent moves both inside and outside the south. Mom's family packed up in the 1940s and moved to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, quickly forging a new Arctic mythology that largely omitted the Lone Star state, except when convenient or extraordinary. There was a bit of New Orleans jazz to spice up the mix, courtesy of my grandfather's med school days at Tulane.
Despite the remove of everyday existence as a much-travelled military dependent, summers throughout my life regularly included extended visits to the ancestral homelands: wrinkled relatives, obscure family connections, parlours and porches, rocking chairs and horsehair sofas. It was a world full of creepy antebellum artwork of multi-children families destined to be destroyed by the Civil War; hunting dogs and kittens; guinea fowl, peacocks and tom turkeys; the road through the pines to the beach.
Perhaps that Willie recording fused with subconscious memories of those humidity-soaked travels, unburied bars of background music from roadside melon vendors, alongside early morning sausage gravy soundtracks at highway diners, of distorted transistor radio waves behind the counter as we pulled ice-cold Dr Pepper bottles out of 25¢ upright coolers (never did figure out how those worked).
I have now come to believe that the seed Willie & Co planted, unacknowledged at the time, found daylight all those years later, fed by Jason and encouraged somehow by the comparatively insalubrious surroundings of my own decaying corner of student-life New England. The whiskey. The beard. The music, bars and cars – and the disastrous, 'put me in a country song' lovelife.
The lifestyle embraced during that stretch in the relative darklands provided intentional distance and proud variance from the relative predictability of student life and empty educational achievements of the Reagan years, the undergraduate army in pursuit of a something called business studies. Existence, fed and reflecting what I was hearing from Jason and an ever-widening country playlist, descended into bouncing checks at the corner grocery, fried chicken sandwiches with American cheese at the Dairy Queen, coin-operated laundries and happy hours.
My view was an overgrown cemetery, asphalt, decorative concrete yard animals, abandoned rails and blinking yellow caution lights on criss-crossed highwires. The 45-minute walk to campus crossed the boundary between one world and another, privilege and none at all, real life and real life delayed. I straddled both sides of the equation while in truth belonging to neither, living what for me was a new reality, a different understanding, a distance from the increasingly limited horizons of the 'square' world.
There was of course no otherworldly messenger to mark the moment I crossed over into this new existence, no parting of clouds, no heavenly fanfare, no parade.
If there had been anything at all – I suspect, and with the benefit of hindsight – it would, in the tradition of the genre, have sounded something like a whippoorwill. On which note, and to explain, it is time for another segue into history.
All text © 2020 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.