Outlaw Country

Music trends come and go, but the ‘Red Headed Stranger’s prolific career proves that artistic integrity is always in fashion

by Lee Abraham

Jazz and funk are hot these days. Techno too. And that’s great. Trust me, I dig jazz as much as anybody. Bands like the Slip, Ulu, the Miracle Orchestra and Viperhouse, are prime examples of today’s best jamjazz. And the more I hear of groups like Sector 9 and Lake Trout, the more I like a little techno flavor in my musical stew. It’s no secret that some of today’s freshest sounds are gurgling in the high tech pulse of the future.

Funk? Sure. I’ll get down and shake it with Deep Banana or the Almighty Senators anytime, anywhere. Same with virtually all the other genres that have been painted onto the jamband scene’s expansive landscape: newgrass, zydeco, world beat, reggae, blues... whatever. Doesn’t really matter. If it’s done well, I can almost always find a hooked groove to hang my dancin’ fool party hat on.

But as much as I like music in general, there’s one dusty street corner on the outskirts of the rhythmic universe that always feels like home to this old rock and roll cowboy. It’s the type of place where you roll your own, and a three day beard is considered good grooming. Way before the jamband scene was even a gleam in its psychedelic daddy’s kaleidoscope eyes, "Outlaw Country" was the new frontier. It was a place where the music biz establishment got the finger, and music fans got a potent dose of heartfelt music, without the sugarcoated packaging and mass media marketing that has been robbing the record industry’s soul for the past 40 years.

OK, I’ll get to the point. We’ve all got our heroes. People we admire for the things they’ve done. Or refused to do. And after attending the 1st Annual Jammy Awards in July, I’ve been thinking about next year’s, ‘Lifetime Achievement Award." This year, the award was given to B.B. King. I’ve got no problem with that. Although I’m not sure how much direct involvement he’s had with the jamband scene, it’s tough to argue with King’s achievements during his legendary career of jamming the blues. By giving King the award, chances are that many younger jamfans who’ve never crossed paths with the ‘Chairman of the Blues,’ will now make it point to check him out. And that’s a good thing.

But it got me to thinking. There’s plenty of folks who deserve the award, some more obvious than others. John Scofield, Merl Saunders, Sonny Rollins, Les Paul, Vassar Clements, and Bob Dylan, are a few that quickly come to mind. And there’s plenty more. Which leads me to my early nomination for next year’s lifetime achievement award: Willie Nelson.

Why Willie? Glad you asked. There’s lots of reasons. First of all, he’s earned it. Just look at his career. The red headed stranger has been prolific. The guy has released somewhere around 70 albums and influenced countless musicians and songwriters with his distinctive voice, offbeat lyrical phrasing, and rockin’ honky-tonk jams. That’s right - jams. Don’t believe it? Give a listen to one of the many versions of his signature "Whiskey River > Stay a Little Longer" segue. That oughta do it. Fans of the big Wu know what I’m talking about. Don’t kid yourself amigo, Willie was jammin’ way before the tied-dyed generation got their first dose of improvisational psychedelia from some bright eyed young San Francisco band called the Grateful Dead.

In fact, for me, Willie and the Dead are forever entwined. Same with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. No surprise. That was the lineup at my first Dead show - Giants Stadium, 9/2/78. A decidedly frisky college freshman taking my first trip into a colorful and exciting new sense of awareness, I could relate to Willie’s outlaw vibe. From the tattered straw cowboy hat worn low over his eyes, to the unbelievably banged up acoustic guitar he played, Willie impressed me with his down-to-earth essence and wild west aura.

More than two decades later, that admiration has only grown. Even if there was nothing more to Willie Nelson than great music and his high and lonesome cowboy cool, he’d still get my vote. But there is more. A lot more. Call it substance. As much as any other musician in memory, Willie Nelson has been true to his own values and creative muse. Outspoken and notorious for his prowess in rolling perfect joints with just one hand in no time flat, Nelson is every free spirit’s highwayman.

His story goes something like this. Born in 1933 in a small Texas town, Nelson was playing in bands as a teenager. After graduating high school, he had a short stint in the Air Force. Then came a job as a radio DJ. Soon he was fronting a band and playing the Texas honky tonk circuit. By the early ‘60s, Nelson had moved to Nashville and had success as a songwriter. As time rolled along, he became accepted by the notoriously tight knit ‘music city’ elite, and was a -Grand Ol’ Opry- favorite.

Signed to RCA, Nelson’s rebellious side began to emerge as the corporate label tried to force him to conform to the more heavily produced, ‘mainstream Country,’ image they envisioned for him. Deciding he would rather raise pigs than work for them, Nelson did exactly that. He retired from music and got into pig farming.

Fortunately, although he might have thought that it was -unfortunate- at the time, Nelson wasn’t a very good pig farmer. And the time off from performing gave him a new perspective. This was back around ’72. Watching bands like the Dead connect with their audience without any of the music biz image manipulation, he felt that his music could do the same, and he got back into performing. -Shotgun Willie- was released in ’73 on Atlantic. A couple of other records on Atlantic continued to reflect Willie’s ever developing confidence and maturity as a stylist, and his legions of fans grew.

-Redheaded Stranger- in ’75 took the progression one step further. Recorded for Columbia, Nelson was now given -full- artistic control. The album sold millions. After that came the movie roles, and too many gold records to list. As a way of giving back to the community, Nelson started ‘Farm Aid’ in the mid ‘80s. More than a symbolic gesture, ‘Farm Aid’ has raised millions of dollars for deserving families in the agricultural industry who are in need of financial help. And when he needed help in the ‘90s to clean up his disastrous finances, including millions of back taxes owed to the IRS, people returned the favor.

Willie Nelson was inducted into the -Country Music Hall of Fame- back in ‘93. Fair enough. Hell, they’ve been around forever and we’re just getting started. But unlike the CMHF, the jamband scene is known for celebrating -diversity-, not a specific musical genre. B.B. King certainly sets that precedent. And just take a look at what happened to Scofield after hooking up with Medeski, Martin and Wood.

The same thing could be true with Willie. Sittin’ here on a dusty street corner somewhere on the outskirts of outlaw country, I’m thinkin’ that’d be a mighty fine sight to see.


-------------------The following letter was recieved from Chris Gardner, editor of the Southwest region for Jambands.com, shortly after the Willie Nelson piece ran...

Senor Lee,

I was raised on Willie. Nothing slipped throught the speakers of dad's old blazer but Willie, Waylon, and Patsy. Actually, Ray Price was allowed, as long as he was singing with Willie. I have seen him enough times that I cannot count them, and he never disappoints.

One sticks out in my mind and speaks most directly to his nomination for our beloved Hall of Fame. On a chilly October night in the early nineties at the Backyard in Bee Caves, TX, Willie took the stage with a blistering Whiskey River, played through an alternately rollicking and heart-wrenching set, closed with Whiskey River, played an encore, kissed a few ladies, and returned for a second encore saying, as always, "We like to go out the way we came in," as he thrummed his way back into Whiskey River again.

The crowd was mixed as always, but, once again as always, of a single mind. The joint erupted as Willie kissed a few more ladies, signed a few boots, and bowed his way off stage. The house lights came on, and the older, ironed shirt crowd that always turns out for a TX show made their bubmling exit, grumbling about youth and wildness. Fifteen minutes later, after the wild youth had smashed their chests up against the stage and climbed atop the pile of discarded folding chairs, Shotgun Willie took the stage with Stratocaster. I had never seen the like, and I more than likely never will again. He ripped, roared, and growled through a blistering version of Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood".

It was as powerful a moment as I have ever experienced through music, and it is the image of Willie that looms above all other memories, a sweaty old man pouring his heart into a borrowed guitar to appease a pile of 200 straglers who wouldn't give up - shoulders down, head up, chin out, eyes closed, and a wicked outlaw grin.

Thanks for drawing that out of me again with an excellent section in a string of excellent sections.

Chris Gardner