The Tao of Willie
Mr. Nelson works his magic at Newport
by Bob Gulla
Most of you have probably heard all the unsavory tales about Willie
Nelson. How he got hammered by the taxman, how a few of his houses have burned
down, how he always seems to come up with those cheeseball radio hits just when
he needs them most.
But in reality, Willie's a lot more than all that. First, most -- if not all
-- of his best records have been virtually ignored by the consuming public. For
that reason, most hardcore music fans, even hardcore country music fans, have
never even heard his best stuff. Second, contrary to popular assumption,
Willie's never been big on (or in) Nashville. He's a Texas cowboy, a classic
Austin space cowboy, in fact, who's always had a severe and rightful disdain
for the polished commercial mechanism of Music City. His grizzly beard, craggy
face, silver ponytail, and threadbare jeans tell you that Willie never cared
much for conformity, let alone fashion. A while back (and occasionally today),
Willie plays Nashville like a gigolo plays an old woman, as a game, a means to
his own end. Unfortunately, gigolos occasionally get caught, and Willie went
back to the well a little too often. The money and drugs and marital problems
bit him in a big way and he finally got the press he had always deserved --
only it wasn't for one of his great records.
But anybody who knows Willie knows that he transcends all the bullshit. We
know that he ranks right up there as one of the finest roots and country
songwriters the genre has ever produced, shoulder to shoulder with Johnny Cash
and Merle Haggard. That's why I write this. Because in Newport this past
weekend, where Willie closed the show on Saturday at the Newport Creamery Folk
Festival, Willie dug into some of those songs with the kind of casual aplomb
that would have made his biggest fans proud.
Willie Nelson has very obviously emerged from that aforementioned social
morass to embrace his music like never before. If his performance at the
festival was any indication, Nelson's focus on new and vibrant ways of
communicating old ideas feels unshakable; his relentless love for his own and
others' great material is unquestionable. He played his greatest songs --
"Georgia On My Mind," "Whiskey River," "Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain" -- a
sublime parade of hits wafting out into Newport Harbor, a torrent of tunes
unlocking memories of times and places past.
Nelson and his band took classics like "Mountain Dew," "Blue Skies," and "City
of New Orleans" and turned them into Grateful Dead-like jams, sans
unnecessary extrapolations, of course. The mood was as loose as the strings on
Willie's guitar -- which, by the way, got a few little guitar hero workouts
throughout the afternoon.
Yeah, his own playing and singing may not be what it was in the early '70s. He
cuts his phrasing lazily short, he sometimes overindulges instrumentally, and
he never allows his personable demeanor to come through to an audience for more
than a few seconds at a time. (Imagine the stories he could tell if given the
chance.) But his exuberance, his newfound vitality at this point in his career
is impressive, not just for what it says about his stamina, but what it says
about his dedication to great music.
He certainly wasn't a likely candidate to close the storied Folk Festival. But
he delivered in ways that so many unfamiliar with him could not have imagined.
Willie works his magic these days in more subtle ways than he used to. But
whether he's strumming at Stubb's just off 6th Street in Austin, or he's
singing to the traffic on the Newport Bridge just off Fort Adams, we can only
hope many of the unconverted caught some of the tricks behind that magic.
MUSICUNSIGNED.COM. The site's name pretty much says it all. The UK-based
Musicunsigned.com provides a stepping stone for unsigned music artists to be
heard and get signed by a record label. According to founder James Sandom, the
site operates like any record company, only with a worldwide A&R focus.
Musicunsigned features a weekly jukebox highlighting top tracks from new
talents. Artists featured on the site are given three tracks streamed directly
to users with RealAudio accompanied by a biography, photos, and video footage.
There's up-to-date music news and reports from international events.
Musicunsigned's A&R section brings artists and bands closer to deals with
MP3 technology. All you gotta do is fill out the online form and mail in a
music demo, either in CD, mini disc or DAT format. A London-based A&R team,
composed of former record label managers, will then listen to the tracks. If
the idea of the company being in London seems daunting, don't let it psyche you
out. It's an open-minded operation, at least for right now.
There is no set criteria, although they admit they're looking for commercial
sounds and charisma, two things a lot of Providence outfits can offer. Once an
artist is selected there's some business about a (non-exclusive) contract
confirming that they'll put up to three tracks on their site. You then send
along a bio, photos, and a list of upcoming shows. The A&R team then meets
with a record label and plays them a selection of artists. The site also aids
new talent by holding promotional events so record labels can watch the artists
perform. Musicunsigned even has its own publishing company, Massive Music.
DreamWorks.com also has the same intention, with an A&R branch on their
site. The only difference is that DreamWorks caters solely to US artists, while
Musicunsigned reaches out to a global repertoire.
WANDERING EYE. It's a big weekend down at the sharply renovated Green
Room, with rising Boston stars the Sheila Divine back in action on
Friday, this time with L'Aventure. The following night, they'll
celebrate their big-ass fifth anniversary with some kick-ass bands: the
Sinners Club, Tokyo Texas, and South of Providence.
Also on Saturday, over at the Century Lounge, you can get fiendishly funky
with Joe Bartone as he leads Fat Buddah in a bill with Xamichee,
who might think about getting a new name as handles beginning with "X" are
generally unpronounceable. Just a suggestion.
Stop the madness! With live bands dedicated to the music of Creed, STP,
Metallica, and Pink Floyd all getting prime gigs this week, it might be easy
for genuine local musicians and their friends to hang their heads despondently.
Don't let it get you down. They'll get theirs. I'm not sure how, but they
Bob Gulla can be reached at email@example.com.