While the majority of musicians make an impression on me due to their abilities, there are some who have become even more indelible because not only are they talented but I associate them with certain periods or specific people in my life. The late Joe Strummer of the Clash, for instance, will forever be associated with the late seventies and early eighties and my burgeoning political activism, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull will always be the first rock concert I ever went to.
Yet the person who I associate with someone in my life more than anyone else wasn't even someone I listened to with any particular interest until later in life. I've always know about Willie Nelson and had listened to him sporadically throughout the years, but it wasn't until I met my father-in-law that I began to go out of my way to find his music. My father-in-law used to tour throughout North Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec in Canada with his band, playing hotel bars and taverns in logging towns, farming communities, and mining towns. At the drop of a hat, or on occasion the toss of a beer bottle, he'd have to be able to play any song that the crowd demanded. In those days, early seventies, and in those places, that meant knowing one hell of a lot of country music.
Now by the time I met my father-in-law he had stopped touring, but he still plays locally in the legions and small taverns in the city we live in. He no longer has to worry about flying beer bottles (he actually played in a place like that bar in the first Blues Brothers movie where he was behind fencing to protect the band from the patrons and objects they might throw at the stage) but he still does quite a lot of the music he used to perform from those days, and one of his favourites was always Willie Nelson.
Hearing him sing various songs that Willie wrote, or perform songs that Willie made famous, started getting me interested in hearing more of his music. There's only so many times you can listen to "Good Hearted Woman", "Momma Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys", "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain", and a couple of others after all. It quickly became apparent that those few songs of Willie's, that everybody was always demanding to hear my father-in-law play, didn't even come close to representing an iota of the man's talent.
From his work with his fellow Outlaws of Country music, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, a collection of old standards that he released back in the seventies, to the songs he wrote for other people (Patsy Cline's 1961 hit "Crazy" was written by Nelson) you'd be hard pressed to think of any musician who has been as prolific and consistent in the past forty-five plus years. In a profession that's not really noted for longevity, not only has he survived, but judging by his brand new release on the Lost Highway label, Moment Of Forever, his talent and stamina show no signs of waning.
The distinctive voice is still as strong as ever, the sense of humour still gentle and intelligent. In an age where self-absorption predominates, he has an awareness of the world around him that's as refreshing as it is rare. Willie has always seemed to be a kind of every-man singer with the uncanny ability to take almost any song and have it appeal to almost everyone. At the same time he never seems to make any compromises in his music or change his approach to life in order to please anyone.
It was that attitude in the ultra conservative Nashville and the even more conservative country Music establishment that gave him outlaw status back in the early part of his career. If the folk who used to run country music hoped to ensure his career tanked with their actions, all that they did was turn him into an icon for everybody who felt like they didn't belong or who weren't comfortable with the straight laced hypocrisy of the country establishment
Moments Of Forever is as strong a new release from anybody that I've seen in ages with a great mix of songs that represent a wide range of topics and emotions. One of the great things about Willie is the way he can get across a message or an idea without having to preach or get all worked up about it. A great example of this is his decision to record Randy Newman's "Louisiana" for this disc. Newman wrote that song about the hurricane of 1927 that did exactly what Katrina did a couple of years back to the low lying levels in the state where all the poor people lived and farmed.
Willie sings the song in his usual manner, without once succumbing to histrionics, simply allowing the song's lyric to do it's job and tell us the story of how the more things change the more they stay the same. Funny enough he uses that very line in the song "You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore" and he's got to be the only man who can sing something like that and not have it sound like a cliche.
Of course it all depends on the context doesn't it, and this song is a bittersweet little piece that Willie wrote about not changing or growing until even you get to the point where you find you're own act has become tired. "Even I don't think that's funny anymore" is a feeling we can all relate too when it gets to the point that we're just going through the motions of living.
Thematically, Moment Of Forever is an interesting mix of material, as the songs seem to be contrasting two ways of living after you've been around for any length of time. You can either let the past control you with regrets and memories of missed opportunities and an inability to let go as is expressed in the opening song "Over You Again" or you can cherish individual moments of pleasure like the title song, Kris Kristofferson's "Moments Of Forever" suggests or Willie's own "Always Now" advises.
Willie is the voice of experience, when it comes to life and when it comes to the music industry. He's lost friends to drugs, drink, and age; his conflicts with the IRS are well known, as was his championship of the family farm with his Farm Aid concerts. Yet whatever his situation he's always been there to sing his songs in a voice that's grown to be almost as familiar as our own, and has become one of the great narrators of our times. Moment Of Forever sees Willie picking up the story of our era again and filling in the parts that nobody else thinks are important to write about, the parts about you and me.