Some listeners may be startled by the unconventional approach of the songs on Willie Nelson’s latest album, Teatro. But then again, Nelson’s fans are accustomed to hearing him bend the rules.
While most singers Nelson’s age are resting on their laurels, assembling their boxed-set retrospectives or settling down in Branson, the 65-year-old iconoclast is making some of the most innovative and inspired music of his 100-plus album career.
Like kindred spirit Bob Dylan last year, Nelson was named one of six 1998 Kennedy Center honorees for the “unique and invaluable contribution he has made to the cultural life of our nation.” Nelson, along with Bill Cosby, Shirley Temple Black and others, was formally inducted during a gala event at the White House earlier this month. Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on December 30 on the CBS television network.
The prestigious honor is much deserved. Nelson has done it all. He revolutionized Nashville twice: First by his songs, later by his immense crossover appeal that began with 1975’s Red-Headed Stranger. His spare-sounding breakthrough album went so against the Nashville grain of the day that his record company president first thought Nelson had presented him with a demo. He has attempted songs most other country singers wouldn’t have considered, and the country outlaw has collaborated with a wide variety of singers and producers, leaping across almost every fixed category of music.
His latest collaborator is Daniel Lanois, the producer who was at the helm of Bob Dylan’s Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind and helped redefine Emmylou Harris as an artist with her Grammy-winning Wrecking Ball. Lanois is also famed for producing acclaimed projects by U2, The Neville Brothers, Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel. Nelson’s Latin-flavored album was recorded in a funky old Mexican movie house outside Los Angeles, converted by Lanois into a studio, that gave Teatro its name. The studio is said to have a dark, film-noir feel, the kind of atmosphere that fits the quiet, intense mood of the songs Nelson and Lanois constructed in the old theater.
Lanois, himself, plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, joining the “Nelson Family” trio of Willie, his sister Bobbie on keyboards, and longtime sidekick Mickey Raphael on harmonica. Emmylou Harris contributes guest vocals on 11 of the album’s 14 tracks. Having sung with Nelson many times and worked with Lanois on her last studio effort, she fit the project perfectly.
“Before I began recording with Daniel Lanois,” Nelson says, “I was curious to find out how Emmylou enjoyed what she had done with him. She raved about Daniel and told me I would love him. A similar thing happened a few years before with Bonnie Raitt; she’s the one who told me how much I would like (producer) Don Was before I worked with him on my Across The Borderline album.
“It’s a little gamble for me to go into the studio with a new producer, because I’m used to producing a lot of my own things. It’s the old story of two cooks in the kitchen. I figured, though, I could turn myself over to Daniel for at least one project without worrying about it too much because he hasn’t cut any bad records.
“Daniel asked me who I wanted to use as a back-up singer. I told him Emmylou can do anything I need to do.”
Teatro is the Texas-born country veteran’s follow-up to Spirit, his acoustic-flavored 1996 debut for Island. The new one is certainly not acoustic, though. Lanois surrounds the singer’s mournful baritone with an atmospheric landscape that utilizes doubled percussion tracks, bass harmonica, Wurlitzer keyboards, a vibraphone, slide guitars and other electric instruments.
This ain’t your daddy’s country music. For Nelson, however, Teatro is just the latest in a career full of musical high wire acts.
“I am still pleasantly surprised with some of the things that I try and the way they turn out,” Nelson says. “You have to believe in what you’re doing, but you never really know if it’s going to work or not.
“The Stardust album was a shot in the dark. A lot of people thought I was crazy to do that album (of pop standards), because it was such a departure from ‘country music,’ whatever that is. Same with the Red Headed Stranger album. When that came out (in 1975) most country records were filled with strings and backing vocals. Red Headed Stranger had nothing–no strings and only one voice. It was a stark difference to record executives. They really didn’t think it was commercial.
“I like to do these different things because I think each album or each song has its own way of being recorded on that particular day. Now the next day, or the next year, you can do that song a hundred different ways. On Red Headed Stranger, I was trying to get that stark simplicity. Same with the Spirit album, which, to me, is a spiritual journey. The Teatro album is an extension of that spiritual journey with just a lot more happening in the music and production. I wanted to take a chance with Daniel and see what would happen if we got together.”
In addition to being a fitting follow-up to Spirit, Teatro is also a testimony to the lasting quality of Nelson’s plainspoken, masterful compositions. While the album does include a few brand new songs, there are several vintage Willie Nelson tracks which are being reprised for the first time on record in many years. That Nelson would care to revisit these songs says something about their depth. “I Never Cared For You,” “My Own Peculiar Way,” “Home Motel,” “Darkness On The Face Of The Earth,” “Three Days” and other tracks on Teatro date from Nelson’s sojourn in Nashville in the early 1960s when he was composing classics like “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
“I put together about a 100 songs and gave them to Daniel,” Nelson explains. “Some of them were new, some were old. I let him choose the songs he wanted to go with in the studio. He picked 20 songs, we went in there and did 14 of those. I feel if a song was good 20 years ago, it’s still good. I have plenty of old tunes that I felt were still good tunes to call upon. I still do. When I go into a studio again, I’ll pick out some other old tunes that people haven’t really been exposed to and try them again.”
Nelson is fond of the way Lanois reworked the older songs by “putting Latin-style rhythms behind some of the saddest songs ever written.”
“Something interesting happens when that happens,” Nelson says. “It makes for an entirely different song. All these songs that you damn near wanted to slit your wrists to before have now all of a sudden become songs that people are up dancing to.”
True, Nelson does lend his warm, quavery voice to plenty of apocalyptic images on Teatro.
“The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all/The sky was never blue,” he sings on “I Never Cared For You.” He mourns in “Darkness On The Face of the Earth” that “I lived within a world that had no sunshine/When you left me darlin’/My world came to an end.”
“I’ve broke her heart so many times/That now at last I’ve broken mine,” he laments in the Western swing-flavored track “I’ve Just Destroyed The World.” The narrator of “I Just Can’t Let You Say Good-bye” strangles a lover in a jealous trance, declaring “You’ll never hurt me anymore/Death is a friend to love and I/Cause now you’ll never say good-bye.”
Nelson writes in “Three Days,” a song Patsy Cline effectively covered, “Three days that I dread to see arrive/Three days that I hate to be alive/Three days filled with tears and sorrow/Yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
These won’t be the last sad songs we hear from Nelson. The singer–once again showing a willingness to stretch and take risks–already has a blues album in the can to follow Teatro. Co-produced by Nelson and Austin-based guitarist Derek O’Brien, the yet-untitled album features a mix of originals and covers. Interpreting old songs in a new way, in the spirit of Teatro, Nelson recorded bluesy versions of “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy” for the project. He also cut blues standards such as “Black Night,” “Kansas City” and “The Thrill Is Gone” for the upcoming album.
Nelson, too, is eager to write and record another album with outlaw compatriot Waylon Jennings, but first he is making plans for his first all-instrumental album.
Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? (Where Are You, My Love?)” opens Teatro with some intricate and beautifully-rendered finderpicking by Nelson, who is a better guitarist than he has been given recognition for. Discussing the instrumental album, Nelson suggests that the Spanish flair of the Django tribute wasn’t a one-time thing. He also suggests he might again bend some rules.
“The album will be a mixture of sounds from Teatro,” Nelson says. “It will be whatever my band sounds like whenever we get in the studio. We sound a little different every night.”