When the subject of vital songwriters comes up, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young usually are mentioned.
I’d like to add one more face to that Mount Rushmore of Song: Willie Nelson.
Throughout his 70s and 80s, the composer of such 50-year-old country music standards as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and the oft-recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away” has released two to three albums a year that include some of his best material. Examples include two pro-pot collaborations: 2012’s “Roll Me Up,” a Nelson collaboration featuring vocals by Snoop Dogg and fellow Highwayman Kris Kristofferson, and the recently released “It’s All Going To Pot” with Merle Haggard from Django And Jimmie, their fourth album together since the 1983 classic, Pancho & Lefty. Both tunes also feature vocals by singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson, one of one of countless artists who have been greatly influenced by Nelson, as well as Haggard. They return the favor with a fun romp through “Pot,” which Johnson wrote with Larry Shell and Buddy Cannon, a frequent Nelson collaborator.
While the tongue-in-cheek “It’s All Going To Pot” helped Django And Jimmie top the Billboard Country Chart and debut at No. 7 on the Pop Album Chart, the disc’s best track is the title tribute to mutual Nelson and Haggard musical idols: gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers. They also pay tribute to another Highwayman with Haggard’s solo-penned “Missing ’Ol Johnny Cash,” begging the question why Haggard never joined the country supergroup that also included the late Waylon Jennings, another frequent collaborator with Nelson.
The righteously ragged duets also include Nelson’s beloved “Family Bible,” which also can be heard on the recent re-release of Peace In The Valley, a 1994 gospel collaboration with his late son, Willie Nelson Jr. Peace In The Valley also includes Nelson’s “Troublemaker,” an ironic tale about Jesus Christ, and a great Southern gospel harmony on the closing title track.
As for Django And Jimmie, the pot-flavored outing was released on April 20 because 4:20 a.m. and p.m. is like tea time within cannabis culture. Nine days later, Nelson turned 82, a milestone he shared in his second autobiography and eighth book, It’s A Long Story: My Life, a music-focused follow-up to 1988’s Willie: An Autobiography. Released on May 5, It’s A Long Story reads like a friendly chat with Nelson, as he chronicles a career that will be honored by the Library of Congress.
Last month, the Library of Congress announced that in November, Nelson will be the next recipient of its Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, whose previous winners include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Carole King and Billy Joel. Nelson was recognized as “an artist whose work continues to inspire new musicians of diverse genres” because of his “continually broadened musical language, crossing into jazz, blues, folk, rock and Latin styles.”
Many music writers, including NJArts.net’s Jay Lustig, a former editor at The Aquarian Weekly and The Star-Ledger, believe that Nelson should be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because he is among those who changed the course of popular music much more than many inductees. I am one of millions of music fans raised on rock who were turned onto two of the genre’s most important contributors, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, by Nelson, Haggard and Cash, as well as Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. The outlaw country movement Nelson crafted with Jennings and others in the mid-1970s helped many Southern rock fans like me realize the roots of both were cool.
While often corny, hokey and gaudy, country music sustains many rock fans because of Nelson, as rock music does with country fans. When you look at how much Rock Hall inductees Ray Charles and Leon Russell enjoyed collaborating with Nelson, you have to scratch your head about why he hasn’t even been nominated.
Well, you can share how much you appreciate Nelson when he comes through the area on Aug. 12 at New York City’s Prospect Park Bandshell, Aug. 15 at the Peach Festival with the Gregg Allman, Bob Weir, Santana and Warren Haynes with Railroad Earth at Montage Mountain in Scranton, PA, and Aug. 16 at The Borgata in Atlantic City. Visit willienelson.com for more about Nelson, including his new album, book and links to tickets.
Bob Makin has been a New Jersey music writer for 35 years and is the former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly.