3
Jul 02

WILLIE NELSON –

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WILLIE NELSON – WILLIE NELSON’S GREATEST HITS…AND SOME THAT WILL BE

Dig this: a little girl is born in the middle of WWII. She is Italian and she is Catholic and from Brooklyn. She also more than a little sensitive, in a good way. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of Martin Scorcese movies so you just know how overbearing almost everyone in her life is. She runs. But she only runs so far. She’s just a bit younger than John Lennon, but she doesn’t make the generational turn that others had made in the sixties. She marries, adopts some kids and moves about twenty miles away to a nice home in the heart of darkest suburbia. She is somewhat, but not entirely, happy.

She saw Alan Freed revues at the Brooklyn Paramount; she wends her way through Martin Denny and the New Christy Minstrels and arrives at country music. Now you must remember this is a little unlikely. She’s awfully polite and maybe a little shy and yet she loves this corny corny music, with all its absurd myths, rendered maybe a little more absurd by the countypolitan glitz of the time. There are rebel truckers and venal motherfuckers and men and women in ridiculously overdetermined clothes fighting off Sunday Morning or drowning in a sea of heartbreak. Sometimes, horses are involved.

If you ask her about it now, she’ll laugh and say that she used to listen to Willie before HE BECAME A HIPPIE! Oh yeah. At some point in the early ’70’s, he abandons Nashville and heads to Austin. He reaches back to earlier forms, like western swing and Lefty Frizzell. He never gets pious about it, though. I’m not sure if he’s even capable of piousness. His singing could be described as communicating a rainbow assortment of carefully-constructed shrugs at life, even as sings about regret or contentment or all the fucking weirdness he knows. It’s not at all upight. It’s cowboy zen.

She gets a horse of her own at some point right about the same moment Willie had his commercial breakthrough. She called him “Golden Blaze.” Horses are all over the culture at that point, tackily signifying freedom and autonomy and a connection to nature. (Think “A Horse with No Name” or “Wildfire” or the cover of Against the Wind.) But for her, the horse and the culture that surrounds it — weekend morning riding rituals, horse lessons for the kids, the new group of slightly weird friends she rides with — really do mean all that. It is not exactly what she hears on the radio, but she’s certainly sensible enough not to want that, exactly. What matters is that she has now already started to redescribe her life in terms very different from the husband and an insular life she has little in common with. Eventually she is divorced, remarried, and reasonably happy. Ducks are also involved.

Or, anyway, that’s the narrative I spin when I think about that time. And I remember that time very, very well. But I don’t really remember her listening to this record at all (And I mean this record, because I have her copy now, since she doesn’t have a record player anymore.) I remember her playing Barry Manilow and oldies records VERY LOUDLY on the stereo we had that was designed to look like a piece of furniture. I also remember Pretty Paper playing a lot during Christmas. Not this one, though. Yet since every song kicks in with happy familiarity, so I figure I must’ve been within earshot of when she was treating herself to Willie’s version of personal freedom — the Austin, Texas within.

Willie Nelson co-starred in a movie she fell in love with: 1979’s The Electric Horseman. It’s a highly entertaining intersection of 70’s country outlaw and 70’s cinematic anti-hero ethos. The cereal-shilling has-been ex-rodeo star discovers the horse he’s been riding was fucked-up on tranquilizers and God knows what else. So he decides to free him in the wild, so he could run with the wild horses that populated the American West. Watching it on cable again a few years later, about the same time she started the divorce proceedings, she realized the ending was much more ambiguous than she first realized. The horse was fed and groomed all its life by careful human hands; now it would have to fend for itself. It would have to sleep under the stars rather than a stable. And knowing what she knew about the social behavior of animals, she also knew there was a good possibility the horse might never be accepted.

Knowing her, though, I’m certain she hoped for the best anyway.

Happy birthday, Mom.

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