In 1996 I was living outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. I was a UNM drop-out, working at a dumpy bookstore and living with old college friends on the east side of the Sandia Mountains. My pool game was at an all time peak. Suffice to say, not much was going on. My college friends were a musical bunch. Not that any of us were exceptional musicians, are talents lay elsewhere, but we did have an enormously eclectic album collection between us, with the single fastest growing genre being country & western. Some of us grew up with it, but had strayed from the path during our teenager years when Led Zeppelin or the Stones seemed cooler than Merle or Buck. Life tends to be circular though, and at some point we began collectively listening to country music again. I had my ears deeply into alt-country bands like Uncle Tupelo at the time, but our tastes were starting to go backwards. Chris, maybe Ethan, maybe Hollis, I don’t recall, time changes everything, came home one day with a new Willie Nelson album called “Spirit”. It was a sleeper album coming behind multiple albums of country and pop standards and about a year before his hot one of the 90’s, Teatro. Had it come after that one, more of us might have heard it, and considered it classic Willie, but, that’s the way it goes.
Nelson wrote every song on “Spirit”. He hadn’t recorded so many of his own songs since the 1985 release “Me and Paul”. Country music, like the blues, mines the dark places of loneliness and heartbreak, often in relatively simplistic terms. Sometimes though, it transcends. Nelson’s songwriting builds on the purple prose of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams and the warbling angst of Floyd Tillman. Deep with love and regret, sometimes violent, his words would take country songwriting into existential soul territory. At times, reflecting the western emptiness mirrored in the writing of Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy.
In a decade of big country production, that western emptiness is the first thing that separates the album It is sparse. A meditation on lost love. Willie brings in just three other musicians. All classic sidemen themselves.
Jody Payne, rhythm guitar and vocals, has played with Willie since the early 70’s, and has known him since the early 60’s when Willie was still playing for Ray
Price. His presence is understated on the album. He’s the rhythm and the roll. The man who makes these songs something you can hold and sway to with your sweetheart on a quiet Thursday evening.
The great Texas fiddle player, Johnny Gimble, is here. Where there is Texas music, there is Gimble. He’s a true believer, one of the remaining titans from an era shellacked in time. He began playing professionally in the 1940’s with Jimmie Davis and went on to play with Bob Wills, Ray Price, and Merle Haggard, not to mention all the years he’s toured with Willie.
Finally, and perhaps, at least from an outsiders perspective, the person closest to Willie, his longtime pianist and sister Bobbie Nelson. If she’s not the finest honky tonk piano player alive it’s only because Jerry Lee hasn’t died, yet. Bobbie has played with Willie for years and is as integral to his sound as that old beat up Martin guitar. She anchors Willie to country music and the two sibling’s musical resemblance to each other is wonderful. Charlie and Ira, Alton and Rabon, Phil and Don, Willie and Bobbie.
Spirit can almost be considered a tone poem. It works, not so much as a concept album, Red Headed Stranger, as an example, but more like William Carlos Williams’ collection “Patterson”, or William H. Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”. Narrative is replaced by feelings, impressions of things that have happened to an unnamed man. It’s more leaf rubbing than story arch. A sweet, slightly Tejano instrumental piece called “Matador” opens up the album and will be echoed again as intermission and coda. It’s this sense of reflection that shapes the albums character. Above all, “Spirit” gives Willie’s old Martin guitar a place to shine. Trigger’s nylon strings perfectly match the mood and voice of the songs and “Matador”, in 1 minute and 45 seconds, sets the scene of what’s to come.
The sad, ghostly song “She Is Gone” begins the album proper. If this is an album of memories, this song cuts to the core. “She is gone, but she was here, and her presence is still heavy in the air.” It’s a lonesome sound, not in the high bluegrass sense, where one yearns to echo off the hills, but in that open prairie way, where the wind sucks away all the sound of the yell. Willie, like most good song writers, doesn’t fill in the story. As it is so often, what something is about is secondary to how it is about. There’s a line in it though that goes “now she’s gone and it don’t matter anymore”. When first hearing the line it seems like masculine pride rejecting an aching heart. By the end though, it comes off as the melancholy reality of something once great, now lost. That’s the key to understanding “Spirit”. It’s heartbreak, like good country should be, but it has legs underneath it and won’t stoop to simple cliche.
The album builds from here, exploring different facets of woman gone. “Your Memory Won’t Die In My Grave” captures the release of loss. It’s reminiscent of Kristofferson’s line “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.
Been feelin’ kind of free, but I sure do feel lonesome
Baby’s takin’ a trip, but she ain’t takin’ me
I’ve been feelin’ kind of free, but I’d rather feel your arms around me
‘Cause you’re takin’ away everything that I wanted
The song is a waltz, with a gentle propulsion to move people around a hardwood floor, or social room tiles. Bobbie plays a sweet high solo near the end that captures the idea of initials carved in a hollow tree so perfectly we almost don’t need the lyric.
I’m often a critic of singer-songwriters. Most of them record 11 song paeans to their soul, without any thought to what I want to hear, and wonder why 32 people show up at their gigs and Nickleback is so popular. The point is two-fold. One, lyrics are secondary to rhythm and melody. Two, if one is not done well, not many will care what you’re are laying bare (note to angry songwriters: if you want me to listen to your counter argument don’t forget the sweet beats). Now, all this being the case, I can often listen to a song for a long time and hear completely wrong lyrics and come away with strange notions of what a song is about. With “Spirit” my listening problem was I was never sure if the central woman had left or had died. Surely, there was room for both interpretations. Did the title allude to her? What of all this talk about graves? I was too busy humming melodies, and dreaming of slow two-steps to worry about the details. Of course though, this is a woman who has left. It’s not her grave we’re talking about, it’s his. If her memory won’t die in his then, deduction and logic would say, she must be in another head too.
Next comes “I’m Not Trying To Forget You Anymore”, the sad clown. The most dylanesque of the songs, with it’s playful lyrics underpinning serious emotion. This could have been on Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” with lines like “I’ve got back into remembering all the love we had before”, and “You’re just someone who brought happiness into my life.” It could work as the final piece of a trilogy to the first two songs. The acceptance of what’s happened and the choice of living with memory. End part one. Almost.
The songs on “Spirit” work on repetition. The melodies echo each other, the lyrics are sparse and repeated, rather than expanded upon. It feels like an old photo album, the pictures sepia toned and black and white, the faces remain the same, with the years being all that change.
Let’s talk gospel. I like it sometimes, but let’s first mention what I don’t like. It’s far to often an us vs. them kind of music. Too often it’s used to clarify positions. There’s an element in gospel, especially modern pop gospel, that wasn’t written for me. It’s comfort food. All fat. I see these swarms of people lifting arms and swaying in worship and I feel nothing. There’s no snake bites here, not flagging tongues. Acceptance is not part of this scene. Distance, body armor, defensive walls, the heady high of righteousness, that is what I hear. They (see, us vs. them) lay down the occasional claim of sinner, but they don’t believe it and neither do I.
Which leads us to sin. In our world it’s drinking too much, fighting too much, loving too much, eating too much, taking too much, maybe even giving too much. I’ve compulsively done all of these things and, depending on when, I’m rightfully ashamed or proud of those sordid times. So, all things being equal, I can not connect with non-sinners.
My favorite gospel singers are the bonafides of course. Jerry Lee Lewis – now, here is a sinning gospel singer. Nothing makes a man sing quite so clearly of the good news of redemption than the man with the flames of hell singeing his backside. Sam Cooke knew a few things about the subject, Al Green, Wanda Jackson, they know, and so does Willie Nelson.
“Too Sick To Pray” is the best gospel song of the last 30 years. Maybe even since Bill Gaither wrote”I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted”. No one will hold hands high and sway to this one. It’s too human and of the flesh. This is not footprints in the sand, it’s crying in a personal wilderness, shouldering a load and working it out. It’s a prayer I’ve prayed. Finally, the song is about family. If not for me, how about for them?
Interlude. A waltz. This is Johnny Gimble not showing off. Just Johnny Gimble being what he is. This is Bobbie Nelson not showing off. Just Bobbie Nelson being what she is.
“I’m Waiting Forever” kicks off what I imagine would be side two of the LP. It’s a regression. Back to the beginning, she has just left a long time ago. This is what waiting forever is like. A constant rehearsal of a reconciliation that will never happen. We imagine letters by a bedside with every “I love you” underlined in red. One of the lines in the song reminds me of Jim Henson and those sad songs Kermit the Frog used to sing on his banjo.
Forever ain’t no time at all
It’s only the time
Between telephone calls
There’s a toy music box quality to this one. A gentle, plucking arpeggio that slowly runs down and finally stops. Haven’t we all made love to a memory?
Now, I’m not completely sure, but I think “We Don’t Run”, is a gospel song too. Stained glass eyes. Trains running through the night on rails of steel that reach the soul. If the Killer was singing this one, I think it would come off as a boast, but Willie sings it as quiet resolve. That’s his way. Never the table turner, at least overtly, yet hardly a glass chin kind of guy either, he’s made his way through this life by putting one foot in front of the other. Love isn’t the only thing that can fill a heart.
“I Guess I’ve Come To Live Here” is a revisit. Willie first recorded this for Honeysuckle Rose, the soundtrack to the 1980 film of the same name. Willie, has covered songs as much as he’s been covered, but also has a fondness for covering himself. It’s a reflection of sorts, living in someone’s eyes. Frozen in amber memory. It could be a prison, but the heartsick will take what he can get and call it paradise. The singer though, is riddled by doubts. He’s not confident it’s paradise and instead clings to hope. Hope can be a powerful motivator and uplifting, but as the Tao Te Ching says, it can also be as shallow as fear. By the end though it has a touch of resignation and maybe even regret.
A dream within a dream comes next. She’s there in his arms, literally his dream come true. There’s nothing a dream can’t do, he sings. Giant spaces make up this song, almost two-thirds being an instrumental slow dance. The rest points to the heavens, which for me affirms the belief of fleeting dreams. Love is only in the stars in myths and legends.
The album finishes lyrically with “I Thought About You, Lord”. It’s a sly reflection on growing, spiritually, physically, the desire of a childhood returned and how friendships are increasingly rare the older we become. Everything brings him back to the Lord. In the end it’s the Lord’s love that he finds peace in, the unending, gentle, sweet and kind love.
The final song before the beginning refracts is the Bobbie Nelson driven instrumental “Spirit of E9”. This finally, is Footprints in the Sand. It feels like a relinquishing, of a love, of a memory that has held tight. A ghost dissipating into the air.
Then we end with the beginning. “Matador” once again, though brief this time. Simply a reminder that though the ghost is gone, it’s not forgotten. The memory doesn’t linger though, it’s a wisp of smoke or maybe something seen in the corner of an eye.
Spirit haunts me slightly. I love it, yet is disquiets me and the final notes cause a restlessness in me. The literary equivalent would be Paul Bowels, whose writing was also deeply spiritual, but also, like this album, at times personal to the author, and unrecognizable as a god I’m familiar with. I believe it can rightfully be considered a gospel album, being the literal translation of “good news”, I’m just not sure the good news is for me. Willie Nelson remains the most unflinching songwriter we have. He lays it bare and forces us to pick and choose. He tends not to fill in the gaps and is neither forthcoming with explanation or seemingly aware that one might be asked of him. The few times I’ve seen someone attempt it, he shrugs and his replies are simple or obscure. A foolhardy game picking an album like this apart the way I’ve done. Broken hearts are like scabs though, I can never stop picking at mine.