“He was exceedingly cool and easy,” long-time Bill Monroe bassist Mark Hembree remembers about Willie Nelson’s presence at a 1983 recording session where Nelson sang and played with Monroe. “I never had a say in Bill’s mixes, but they had Willie’s guitar way up and as we listened to playback he mentioned it, then turned and asked what I thought,” Hembree wrote in a recent exchange of messages. “I agreed, a little surprised he would ask me.”
People who hear about Willie Nelson’s latest album, Bluegrass, before hearing the music might ask, “Wait, what? What does Willie Nelson have to do with bluegrass music?”
Upon listening, at least two answers come to mind: 1) Much more than you might think. 2) Don’t worry so much.
With tunes by Nelson, one of the best American songwriters, played by notable pickers, the record contains strong music that should sound welcome to fans of Nelson, of bluegrass, and of the field with the loose label, “Americana.”
It’s a given that in more than 60 years of major-label recording, Nelson, 90, has been better known for presenting his own songs, enduring tunes such as “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “On the Road Again,” the last of which is heard here in a new version. But he’s also made his name with notable covers – like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Seven Spanish Angels,” “Blue Skies,” and others – in a welter of styles, including blues, pop standards, and even reggae. Nelson’s core music enfolds ‘40s and ‘50s country, traditional fiddle tunes, four-square gospel, ragtime, some swing flavorings, and definitely a heap of blues. The mix also includes more contemporary pop. Subtract some of that last bit of material, throw in some lonesome mountain banjo and ballads, and you’ll find, in different proportions, foundational bluegrass as designed by chief architects like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.
Legacy Records, the Sony division putting out Nelson’s Bluegrass disc, says the style “was given a name by Kentucky songwriter/performer/recording artist Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, whose post-war recordings profoundly influenced Willie’s songwriting sensibilities and the direction of American country music in general.” They go on to say, “Willie chose songs combining the kind of strong melodies, memorable storylines and tight ensemble-interplay found in traditional bluegrass interpretations of the roots (from European melodies to African rhythms) of American folk songs.”
And it’s pretty much on target. But what else speaks to Nelson’s involvement with bluegrass?
Let’s return to the early ‘70s, when he famously abandoned a Nashville scene where he had achieved songwriting fame and a recording career. But Music Row had flagged in creativity and opportunity, he and others thought. And yes, at the end of 1969, his house had burned down. By 1972, Nelson’s persona was changing as his new approach revisited his Texas roots. The year saw new-breed stars like Kris Kristofferson showing up at the first Dripping Springs Reunion, a Texas country music festival. The show, which was to morph int0 a string of outdoor throwdowns known as Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic, presented a bluegrass contingent led by Monroe, with foundational figures Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt leading their post-breakup bands, as
well as additional notables including Jimmy Martin.
Jo Walker, executive director of the Country Music Association, told the Austin-American Statesman that the trade group was delighted to hear about the Dripping Springs Reunion. “So many of the rock festivals and similar events have reflected so unfavorably on the music industry that we are particularly happy that your reunion will be a Country Music show.” But with Nelson embracing a new, youth-driven fan base and a long-haired, bandana-ed look, what did country music even mean?
There was a growing correlation, it seemed, between the increased popularity of bluegrass and the emergent outlaw (read: long hair, free-thinking, whiskey-drinking, dope smoking, etc.) movement in country music, led by Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Its bluegrass surge was sparked in part by the Earl Scruggs Revue’s broad acceptance in non-traditional venues like college campuses and hot sales for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Back in Nashville, in 1973, wider acceptance of bluegrass also meant that Monroe, his former Blue Grass Boy Flatt, the brilliant wildman Jimmy Martin, and the great brother team of Jim & Jesse McReynolds would join Nelson amid the crowd of stars at CMA’s second annual Fan Fair celebration.
In 1974, both Scruggs and Monroe, as well as Grand Ole Opry stars Ernest Tubb, Jeanne Pruitt, and Roy Acuff appeared on stage singing with another wildman, country-blues rocker Leon Russell. That’s documented in a photograph of this period, likely from a Willie’s Picnic. Quite a lineup.
A version of the picture found on the web says the shot is from A Poem is a Naked Person, a documentary on Russell by esteemed filmmaker Les Blank shot between 1972 and 1974, but not released until 2015. Nelson appears in the movie to sing “Good Hearted Woman” – also on this new album – playing guitar bass runs that would work fine in bluegrass. He also backs up fiddler Mary Egan, of the Austin “progressive-country” band Greezy Wheels, on an energetic version of the bluegrass-country perennial “Orange Blossom Special.”
In 1974, Nelson went to work in the soul-music capital of Muscle Shoal, Alabama, to record a milestone disc on his road to making records his own way. The album, Phases and Stages, which won over both fans and critics, contains prominent five-string played Scruggs-style on the hit “Bloody Mary Morning,” which also returns on Bluegrass.
The 1983 Bill Monroe session referenced above came after a last minute February 22 phone call from Nelson to let Monroe know he was available to appear on the in-progress Bill Monroe and Friends album for MCA Records. That’s according to a passage in the indispensable book, The Music of Bill Monroe, by bluegrass scholars Neil Rosenberg and Charles Wolfe.
“[Engineer, Vic) Gabany recalls that on February, 22, 1983, Monroe called the studio and asked if it was free that afternoon,” Rosenberg and Wolfe write. “Willie Nelson was in town, and he wanted to rush in and cut the duet with him. Fortunately, it was. Moreover, the Blue Grass Boys were all available, and Haynes was able to round up studio musicians Charlie Collins and Buddy Spicher.”
Monroe’s original tune with Nelson, “The Sunset Trail,” shows the impact of another style, cowboy music, that both men favored. Nelson reaches into his upper range to sing below Monroe, who’s going way up there, as was his wont. “It’s a thrill of my life to be here with you,” Monroe says as he and Nelson exchange praise in the track’s introduction.
In 1990, Monroe accepted Nelson’s invitation to perform at the April 7 Farm Aid IV concert in Indianapolis. “We’re glad to be here with Willie Nelson!” he said to kick off a set marked by powerful singing, crisp mandolin picking, and a little crowd-pleasing buck dancing. The show placed Monroe, 79, in a lineup that included stars such as Elton John and Lou Reid. The Indianapolis Star estimated the crowd at 45,000.
During Monroe’s last years — he died in 1996 — he often spoke to Nelson on the phone, according to a person who didn’t want to be identified, but often spent time at Monroe’s home on the farm outside Nashville during that period. “He valued their friendship immensely,” the person said.
Bluegrass‘s 12 songs contain several Nelson compositions that became standards of his repertoire, along with less familiar tunes that also fit in the recording approach overseen by Music Row’s Buddy Cannon. A songwriter and producer, Cannon is known for delivering big songs, like “Set ‘Em Up Joe” for Vern Gosdin, and chart hits for more recent mainstream acts such as Kenny Chesney, John Michael Montgomery, and Reba McEntire. A frequent Nelson collaborator, Cannon assembled a list of Nashville co-conspirators: Union Station members Barry Bales, on bass, and Ron Block, on banjo; former Union Station member and current rising star Dan Tyminski on mandolin; fiddler Aubrey Haynie; Dobro man Rob Ickes; Seth Taylor also on mandolin; as well as harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who’s worked for decades in Nelson’s band.
The music mostly doesn’t come off as hard-core bluegrass in the mode of, say, the Stanley Brothers. But it leans on the elements that Nelson has in common with the style — lonesome melodies, classic country, swing and blues.
The mournful “You Left Me a Long, Long Time Ago,” from 1964, reflects the straight-country songwriting to which Nelson and others brought a terse, modern beauty in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was a time when bluegrass enjoyed a closer co-existence with mainstream country, as opposed to straining against the tight format borders that limit today’s music business. Among the many artists who crossed back and forth freely were guitarist-songwriter, Carl Butler, fiddler Tommy Jackson, and Cajun star Doug Kershaw. They all worked with Monroe.
A new version of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” mourns in tones not too different from Monroe favorites ranging from “Kentucky Waltz” to “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight.” The song also recalls the 3/4 time Lone Star tunes that Nelson might have heard at the Texas Fiddlers Contest and Reunion.
That show got going in 1934 in Athens, Texas, just one year before Nelson arrived on the scene in Abbott, less than 90 miles away.
The fiddle contests that influenced so much of Texas music beginning in the 19th century, had parallels in the 18th century Southeast, where contests featured both the fiddle and the banjo, with its African roots. This music went around, and it still comes around.
The sock-rhythm backing of “Ain’t No Love Around” recalls early Blue Grass Boys recordings such as “Heavy Traffic Ahead,” recorded September 16, 1946, and featuring Earl Scruggs’ first recorded banjo solo. Elsewhere, the laidback favorite, “On the Road Again,” gets a more intense reading from Nelson, with some vocal and instrumental improvisation to spice it up. The mystical “Still is Still Moving to Me” leaves plenty of room for pickers to range far and wide on banjo, mandolin, fiddle and Dobro.
“You give the appearance of one widely traveled,” Nelson sings in “Yesterday’s Wine.” He’s singing from a faraway spot in time, in myth, in history. It’s a stance that’s earned a place on bluegrass playlists for more recent songwriters such as Guy Clark, David Olney, and Gillian Welch.
“Bloody Mary Morning,” from Phases and Stages gets the most recent of several revivals from Nelson, who led a jam-grassy version in the 1980 film Honeysuckle Rose and later sang it in a duet with Wynonna Judd. The song’s forthright tale of fighting the blues by having a highball on a plane seems somehow classier than the constant tales of beer and pickups that populate country radio.
In the end it seems clear that for decades, both Willie Nelson and bluegrass music have served, in different ways, as a conscience of country music. Just as the Solemn Old Judge, WSM radio announcer George D. Hay, commanded, they “Keep her close to the ground, boys,” although their paths have diverged, at times.
In any case, this new collection brings Nelson together with bluegrass pickers for music that might even work to serve that same worthy purpose.
Photo Credit: Pamela Springsteen