Last week’s news that country music icon Willie Nelson would play a rally for Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth among self-proclaimed fans of the genre. Nelson’s Facebook and Twitter accounts were splattered with tears and rage in messages like, “I am no longer willing to watch that hippie guitarist who supports that … socialist running for Senate,” and, “Wow what a let down.”
These patriotic heartlanders have already been twitterschooled in the numerous liberal causes and candidates supported by Willie over the last 45 years or so. I wonder if they would be even more disappointed to learn just how their former hero’s support for a “radical,” “socialist” candidate saved the music they claim to love.
A quick glance at Nashville charts in the early 70s reveals a music style in atrophy. While the industry was able to rely on acts like Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride to bring in hits, too many releases sounded too much the same.
Then came a sudden pollination from a wild wind out of west Texas, with writers like Guy Clark, Townes van Zandt raising eyebrows on Music Row.
Willie wasn’t part of that Lone Star invasion. In fact, he was headed the other way. After trying to make it as a recording artist for ten years in Nashville, he was throwing in the towel. Despite some success as a writer, Willie never caught on with Music Row’s gatekeepers, so he decided to quit the music biz and return to his native Texas.
He found a very different Lone Star State than he’d left, particularly in Austin, where university kids and misfits from all over had established a hippie culture. Which would save country music and make a mediocre beer a universally-recognized symbol of Texas.
Joe Nick Patoski, Michael Corcoran and others point to Willie Nelson’s August 1972 show at Armadillo World Headquarters as “the Big Bang of modern Austin music,” the genesis of “outlaw country,” “new country,” and the zillion permutations now dumped in the catchall bin Americana.
But a look at the record tells a slightly different story of that fateful summer when Willie was trying out his new band and hairs long and short found a mutual affinity that changed country music.
The actual record. From the liner notes of “The Complete Atlantic Sessions”:
A young Arkansas Democrat named Bill Clinton was in charge of organizing events for McGovern in Texas, and the idea of a fundraising concert in the park was pure Austin. Many local bands performed earlier in the day, including Greezy Wheels, Conqueroo, Storm, with a young Jimmy Vaughn, Lea Ann & the Bizarros and others, along with a weary but committed Phil Ochs.
But near the end of the show, Nelson came onstage with only bassist Bee Spears, drummer Paul English, and Greezy Wheels’ fiddler Mary Eagan behind him and started his set with “Crazy.” Then, “Hello Walls.” Then “Me and Paul.” And then “Night Life.’ For the first song or two, the audience wasn’t quite sure what to make of the country singer. After all, this was a rock ‘n roll show, and the audience was 80 percent long haired hppies, with the other 20 percent died-in-the-wool Democrats doing their damnedest to try and stave off an impending Richard Nixon landslide. It didn’t take long for all the listeners there to get into the simple and serious country music they were hearing, and completely give themselves over to the singer in the black cowboy hat. As for Nelson himelf, his open and trusting eyes made it clear that he was also discoverying that a brand-new audience was just waiting for his style of country music to come in and turn these Austinites right on their ear.
That day in the park was ground zero for the bag bang theory of what came to be called, for better or worse, “redneck rock,” where the counterculture rock crowd discovered how soulful a fit one of country music’s all-time greats was for them, and vice versa. The plate was prepared for Nelson to take that vibration all around the United states and beyond.
(via StillisStillMoving, where you can see a picture of a younger, beardless Willie playing at the rally.)
Ironic, eh? The people who are howling about Willie “betraying” them by supporting “socialist” Beto O’Rourke might not have ever heard of Willie Nelson, let alone have CDs of his to burn in their Nike fires, if it hadn’t been for the man’s support of George “Amnesty Acid Abortion” McGovern. In a show advanced by none other than Bill “Slick Willie” Clinton!
Honestly, I have no idea if history repeats or even rhymes. But sometimes you sure can dance to it.
Editor's note: This article was originally published at the Daily Kos, which specifies that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."