Stephen Mejias, our excellent assistant editor, is fully in the grip of vinyl fever. He and I are now having daily conversations about the once and future allure of the long player.
He's going through vinyl fever for the first time and it's a ball to watch. This morning, we began talking about the "break-up" that most of us oldsters had to go through with our vinyl when CDs took over and the prospect now of going back and becoming re-addicted.
My Analogy: You had a long distance romantic relationship across the Atlantic that you had to break off. You had no choice. Then suddenly, that person (a she, in my case) moves back and possibilities reappear. You have to ask yourself if you can do it again? Can you reignite the passion? Can you crawl back into bed with that little....sorry, that may be carrying the analogy a step too literal but you know what I mean.
And now the strange case of Willie Nelson. Without putting too fine a point on it, most of the people I've known who regularly partake in green leafiness have not been great accomplishers. They've more apt to be cramming salty snacks and staring at reruns of the Rockford Files. Yet at age 75, Willie Nelson has more get up and go than I had at age 16 when the concept of gurls suddenly snapped into sharp focus. In the past few months, he's been the subject of a new book and has released two new records and yet another boxed set.
The biography of Nelson An Epic Life is by well-known Austin writer Jo Nick Patoski, who's become the go-to Texas music bio scribe having already written books on Selena and Stevie Ray Vaughan. If you're even a casual Nelson follower, much of the info in the book will be familiar. Still, Patoski has an appealing, loose style and the other big Nelson book, Graeme Thomson’s, The Outlaw (2006) (with an introduction by Keith Richards(!)), was written by a Scotsman. Now forgive my xenophobia, and my ancestors were/are from Scotland, but it seems to me that a Texan might know a little more about a Texas legend.
The new records are a study in extremes. I noticed a pervasive stench filling my office when the mailroom dropped off a copy Nelson's collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues. One thing Willie has never quite groked (see green leafiness above) is that just because someone comes up with an idea doesn’t make it a good idea. Wynton, of course, has never met a collaboration he didn't like. They don't require much actual playing and they often sell well. The guy is fairly despicable as artists go, riding at this point on his coattails than on actual work. Then there's his role as the chief living repository of jazz history, the grand old man of jazz, which is pretty nauseating to watch and listen to. Two Men is a lightweight outing featuring Willie’s laconic singing and Wynton comping/clomping along behind him fronting a Preservation Hall– styled band. If it's musical ambition and ideas you seek, this ain’t it.
Better is Nelson's Moment of Forever where Willie settles into the modern rock groove that he's been in since 2002's The Great Divide. On the plus side he works his still potent vocal magic on such solid tunes like Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 which he incorrectly lists as just "Louisiana." I thought BMI and/or ASCAP would get evil on ya about shit like that but then what do I know. His cover of Dave Matthews’ "Gravedigger," shows that there really isn't any tune Willie can’t sing. It's also his attempt to stay hip among the kids and sell some records there. Actually to be fair, to his great credit, he's always been interested in young songwriters. Ending the record with Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody," is sweet. The record is produced by Kenny Chesney, which would normally invoke gagging if not outright wretching on my part (Is he gay? Is he not gay? who cares?) but the truth is that with an artist who’s been at it as long as Willie has, he’s producer–proof.
Finally there's the boxed set. Made out of environmentally–friendly materials—I’m just noting it, not making fun—One Hell of a Ride is certainly the most comprehensive boxed set ever done on the man. It's cross-licensed across the entire span of his recording life. Now here's the question though: do you own any or all of the following: the two different versions of The Essential Willie Nelson; one out–of–print version on RCA (before the merger with Sony) and the other on the merged Sony/BMG, 16 Biggest Hits, The Very Best, The Complete Atlantic Sessions, Revolutions of Time: The Journey 1975-1993, Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and some that will be)? If so, why do you need more? For those still unsure, the book in this set is the model by which all future boxed sets will be judged: masses of really cool previously–unseen photos.