I let my mind wander, and what did it do?
It just kept right on going,
Until it got back to you.
− Willie Nelson, "I Let My Mind Wander," (ca. 1960)
On his new release, You Don't Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker (Lost Highway), Willie Nelson starts out with "Bubbles In My Beer," a song he's been singing since he was a teenaged roadhouse journeyman in the 1940s, already wandering out of his tiny Hill Country hometown of Abbott, TX.
However Nelson sang it then, he sounds pretty worn out now, confessing that he blew his chance at true love: "and the dreams I once dreamed are empty, as empty as the bubbles in my beer." The bright little bubbles in the music seem to mock his ol' man quiver. Actually, though, Nelson's own peculiar and subtle western-swing style creates a unified effect: The whole track is tight and bouncy as any bubble, yet it never bursts into mere cuteness or self-pity. It's a great combination of both.
Classic Willie, in other words -- at least in terms of his own early songwriting, like "Crazy" and "Hello Walls" -- hits for Patsy Cline and Faron Young, respectively -- which he'll likely perform at Verizon on July 28.
Effective contrast is something that Nelson may well have learned about from fellow Texan songwriter Cindy Walker, who died in March. On You Don't Know Me, Walker's songwriting demonstrates how to adapt to different mid-20th century country music fashions without sacrificing distinction. She's got style, in both senses of the word.
Although he evidently did get some early tips from Walker's songs, Nelson later took the misery and fun of "Bubbles In My Beer" to a new extreme for an emerging Nashville songwriter. In his early '60s song "I Just Can't Let You Say Goodbye," describing a spurned lover who finally turns violent, the lyrics are both startling, in a sneaky way, and yet reassuring, because the trickiness is like something in a screenplay. Not a movie -- it's a little more detached than that.
(Nelson didn't want it banned; he was looking for a kind of novelty hit, the musical equivalent trendy "psychowesterns" like Paul Newman's Left-Handed Gun.)
Yet that detachment makes it more believable, ultimately: Here's the typical early Nelsonian brooding nerd character once again, still sitting in a honky-tonk and forever polishing the lines he'll (probably) never say to the woman who done him wrong.
In or out of honky-tonks, there are a lot of people like that. This one's got a palpably woman-shaped hole in him, which all the booze and all the music can't fill. But still, Nelson's got to try, and her absence and his need -- expressed in a vocal and guitar style that are conversational, spontaneous-seeming via expert timing -- are real enough to make for compelling listening. (Check out RCA's virtuoso 1966 set, Country Music Concert, later re-released as Willie Nelson Live.)
Nelson's early songs return, in a high-contrast reggae setting, on the 2005 Lost Highway collection, Countryman. Countryman's uneven; sometimes the vaulting grooves seem to romp obliviously all over his worn voice, not even mocking it, like those "Bubbles In My Beer" did.
More often, though, he and the other performers act out a mutual sense of righteous grievance. (It also helps that he covers two 1970s reggae anthems: Jimmy Cliff's steadfast "Sitting Here In Limbo" and the defiant "The Harder They Come.") There's not so much self-righteousness though because the music, as written and arranged, is too fluid to stand pat.
So Countryman teaches that effective contrast depends on a sense of something in common. A point of convergence and divergence, as, in this case, where two different musical genres come together (for a while). Nelson's still known to perform the occasional reggae song onstage. Of course, "On The Road Again" is his theme song; he seems to still thrive on touring. And his new book, The Tao Of Willie (Gotham Press), is a reminder of his long-held belief in reincarnation, of the underlying balance between continuity and change.
It's this guiding -- but still restless -- sense of the connections underneath divisions (in time and space, music and society) that seem to keep Nelson going and inspired. He's not above working different angles: The 2002 "vigilante" duet with Toby Keith, "Beer For My Horses" on Keith's Unleashed, was followed in 2003 (while the Iraq War was still young) by the anti-war "Whatever Happened To Peace On Earth?" The pro-gay cover of Texan singer-songwriter Ned Sublette's "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly" was released on Valentine's Day of this year.
Both of the latter tracks remain available only as iTunes downloads (the "Cowboys" is also a ringtone). But Nelson keeps taking chances, to whatever degree.
His 1973 LP, Phases And Stages (which has just been re-released as part of The Complete Atlantic Sessions on Rhino), could easily have been mere (rather than inspired) soap opera. Phases And Stages could have turned off his newly acquired rock audience, which was developing a taste for rough-edged country. Nelson even uses some string arrangements, which he'd previously rejected when moving from the conservative Countrypolitan approach toward his hip Outlaw image. The strings are effective though, and Phases is presented in a then-fashionable rock format: the concept album. It's about a couple who have broken up and are trying to adapt. Eventually, the woman is left back at the beginning: "I may be falling in love again, and if I lose or win, how will I know?" Maybe if she lets her mind wander just a little bit further.