The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac’s On The Road to quasi-philosophical works like Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America’s love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover it’s a country whose identity changes from region to region.
While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces, singer-songwriter Willie Nile’s latest release, American Ride (on Loud and Proud Records) not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile’s personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he’s made during the course of his journey.
Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, “This is Our Time”, exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release.) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn’t exactly original. However, as with all of Nile’s songs, intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
Yet Nile isn’t blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn’t sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. “Holy War” is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because its God’s will, his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, “God’s holy, you’re not”. It’s not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.
Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, “God Laughs”. In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. “God laughs, God cries/God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes/God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he’s God”. Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they are they’re missing the point. Nile’s God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses, and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we’re created in His image, doesn’t that mean we and He reflect each other?
While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died”, are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, “American Ride”, has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his “American Ride”. Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways, he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there’s also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. “Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as anywhere to make our stand/Some might say it’s all a dream/Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/Your untamed beauty got me on my knees”.
His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he’s not blind to the country’s less than noble past or the problems it still hasn’t been able to solve. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country’s people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile’s ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says “my country right or wrong”.
Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what’s basically a traditional folk song, “The Crossing”. As you journey through this album you’ll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.
Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it’s easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you’ll realize there’s more to his material than what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful, as at first listen they sound rather straightforward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song’s theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn’t try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what’s being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
Like other great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straightforward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight-from-the-heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers. Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they’re always going to be truthful.
American Ride is the latest installment in Nile’s recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It’s been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there’s still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.
(Photo credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)