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In 1975, Willie Nelson took the tapes for his first Columbia LP, Red Headed Stranger, to the label’s offices for a preview. Hearing spare acoustic textures supporting a concept-album tale of murder, love, and redemption, one exec remarked that the set could use some sweetening. The songs sounded more like demos than radio-ready Nashville fare. If not for the protestations of Willie’s buddy (and proven seller) Waylon Jennings, Stranger might have been scuttled. Instead, the record came out the way it was and paved the road for every Nelson experiment to follow.
Twenty years later, Stranger’s theme, “Time of the Preacher,” has been fleshed out with an arrangement that Jennings never would have imagined. Twisted Willie, a tribute disc that brings together the redhead himself, his three partners from the Highwaymen, and over a dozen major and minor alt-rockers, opens with stirring power chords and a thumping rhythm section. Then, as the grungy crunch of Kim Thayil’s guitar and Krist Novoselic’s bass fades, an acoustic guitar ambles in, followed by the magisterial voice of Johnny Cash.
Rather than becoming a tug of war between the grungers and the god, “Time” quickly establishes itself as a more successful statement of Cash’s concerns than 1994’s American Recordings. An abusive Thayil solo perfectly conveys the rush of conflict in the mind of the song’s protagonist.
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“Time of the Preacher” also gives swift notice that Twisted Willie, despite its one-joke potential, is a lot like Nelson himself in its fascination with a myriad of musical forms. Unlike too many tribute albums, this one, conceived by Justice Records boss Randall Jamail (who has also issued two Nelson solo discs since Willie’s Columbia contract ended in 1993), doesn’t work ass-backwards. Instead of driving the listener immediately back to superior originals with pale, slavish copies or malnourished “re-imaginings,” Twisted does right by its songs. And not always the most obvious ones, either. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and “Bloody Mary Morning” are here, but relatively forgotten gems of Zen anti-romanticism like “I Never Cared for You” and “Three Days” make up the bulk of the selections.
The latter two were written during Willie’s prolific early years in Nashville, when he landed hits for others with compositions like “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away,” while only occasionally succeeding as a recording artist himself. (The Music City finishing school didn’t have a lot of use for a singer whose phrasing was idiosyncratic enough to impress Miles Davis, who once named a song for him.)
Willie’s work from this period ranks as some of his darkest. It’s no surprise that Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell, respectively, are drawn to the deeply moral poetry of “She’s Not for You” and “I’ve Seen All This World I Care to See.” Nelson has cut 1962’s emotionally fatigued “She’s Not” at least four times (most recently on Across the Borderline); Lanegan’s take suggests a kinship between the resignation of the tune’s oft-jilted narrator and the late-night stoicism of recent Tindersticks records.
“I’ve Seen All” ‘s name is reminiscent of those of Hank Williams’ most spiritually wrecked songs, and it also shares their sense of Old Testament-style doom. “I close my eyes and watch the darkness,” the litany begins; Cantrell’s colleague Layne Staley ought to grind his teeth in envy.
Another ’60s copyright, “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” here essayed by Jesse Dayton, artfully encapsulates the commercial dilemma that faces country’s more prickly writers: “Though my record may say it, no one will play it.” In the ’90s, it serves as both an embittered love ballad and a reminder that trendy musical chairs is hardly a new pastime.
Twisted Willie also cannily updates the songs-for-hire theme by giving a few artists the best-crafted crunch fodder they’ve ever had. Minor-league power-poppers Best Kissers in the World get a charge out of “Pick Up the Tempo” that they’ve never mustered from their own wise-ass ditties. And L7 bests its own inconsistent songs by turning the ballad “Three Days” into a feral rant. The noise creates a kind of desolation; Jennings’ mutterings hover around its edges like a drifter haunting a ghost town. It could have been better still if only lead singer Donita Sparks had toned down the caricatured hillbilly melisma. (This ain’t no Hee Haw audition, darlin’.)
In a sense, Twisted Willie also expands upon Nelson’s successful early-’70s attempt to fuse redneck and hippie audiences at his Texas shows. Both factions were happy to hear the singer (long before his politicization by the small-farmer crisis and search-and-seizure issues) derisively sketch a Klan member getting rich “sellin’ sheets on the family plan” on Shotgun Willie’s title track.
A coalition something like that one is at work here. Though the Lollapalooza generation may not be ready to endorse the author of Faron Young’s biggest hit, Twisted Willie’s college radio-wise contributors aren’t just blowing smoke when they praise the headbanded one in the album’s liner notes. Supersuckers even entice the big guy to pick a typically fleet-fingeredwell, maybe a bit fleeter than usualacoustic solo on their speedcore “Bloody Mary Morning.” And whatever Southern-rock audience still exists might well lift a flask to Tenderloin’s “Shotgun Willie,” which grooves hard enough to be heir to the tradition of ’70s boogie-monsters Brownsville Station’s “Kings of the Party.”
Not all cuts reach such heights of creative recreation. Life After Life’s rote punk-metal backing doesn’t make Jello Biafra’s overvibratoed take on “Still Is Still Moving to Me” any more palatable. The Presidents of the United States of America may connect with the highway-weary theme of “Devil in a Sleepin’ Bag,” but their rewritten version sounds smug and flat. (Given the heavy touring that every act here, from Gas Huffer to Kris Kristofferson, is well acquainted with, it’s a wonder “On the Road Again” doesn’t get Twisted somewhere in these 50-plus minutes.)
Twisted Willie finally ends up in the ditch of self-absorption it has skillfully avoided on the rest of the drive. Its closing track, “Angel Flying,” is rendered in a catatonic drone by Kelley Deal over the whir of a Sears sewing machine. Exactly as appealing as you’d expect from this description, it also features a Kristofferson cameo. Maybe Waylon can sit Kelley down for a chat about post-rehab clarity.
It’s become a show-biz cliché to label a record like Twisted Willie a “celebration.” But at its genre-bending best, it’s just that. Whether or not this one lasts as long as Red Headed Stranger, it says a lot about Nelson’s knack for the universal. The fans assembled on it would all nod in agreement at what Cash once said: “Now, there was a song.”CP