It’s been a rough 24 hours mourning with so many around the world over the loss of Prince. There are beautiful tributes by his friends and loved ones, by female musicians that were inspired by his inclusion of amazing women in his bands from the beginning of his career, by African Americans for all he represented and inspired within their diverse communities, by musicians who marveled at all he could do with seemingly any instrument he touched, by songwriters for his ability to craft perfect songs, by producers and engineers who were influenced by his creative use of technology in making records that will stand the test of time, by creatives who felt inspired by his disregard for the rules and by anyone who didn’t feel like they fit in their environment.
This Tuesday, April 30, will be the 80th birthday of Willie Nelson. This has become a yearly holiday in my musical calendar the last five years. Andy Sells and I were playing a weekly gig across the street from my house at the Park Pub and randomly decided to do a Willie Nelson night on his birthday. That was the first time I had sung at a show for over ten years. I’m positive I didn’t sound very good. But I later discovered it wasn’t the point.
Relearning those songs triggered the awakening of a voice that I never realized I had. This musical self-discovery is still in process as I hope it always will be. But I think the right thing hit me at the right time. And the right thing was the power of Willie Nelson’s musical vision and his artistic voice.
For years I had been guided musically by voices such as Miles Davis, Bjork, Prince, Joni Mitchell, Sly and the Family Stones, Squarepusher and Bill Frisell to name a few. But as a small child I spent hours listening to vinyl and singing along with the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson classics. I remember strumming along on the guitar as well – but I suspect I wasn’t hitting the right chords.
Relearning those Willie Nelson songs brought me full circle musically. It brought me back to the sounds that first mesmerized me. These sounds made something gradually click for me. The light bulb faded on slowly and I began to see the connection between Miles, Bjork, Prince, Joni and all the artist I had become enamored with over the years. As I rediscovered the music of Willie Nelson, I discovered for the first time after many years the reason I always wanted to play music.
I realized I would never be a comfortable keyboard guy who could play the right part at the right time using the right sound. Those gigs (which I have done a lot of) really stress me out because I can’t relate to that role very well. But Willie’s music connected me to the source of what turns me on about playing and listening to music.
All of my musical heroes are considered rebellious because they didn’t conform to what the industry and society told them was ok. This rebellion was not contrived to get attention, to gain a following, to shock the world into taking notice. It was a rebellion that actually put us in touch with our true and most basic self. It may or may not be intellectually or academically groundbreaking. It is a sound and vision that strips away the unnecessary layers that society, politics, marketing, education, religion, the music industry and all institutions put between us and our own integrity. It is sad that this constitutes as rebellion, but I suppose this is why we need rebellion and this is why we need heroes.
Willie Nelson is a hero figure in the classic sense. He has been honest and open about his lowest points in life and shares them as equals to his peaks in life. He has used his own suffering to evolve personally and musically. He has broken down prejudices against gays, African-Americans, minorities, religious leaders and anyone who people don’t consider to have a place at the table – and has done so without shouting, screaming or being angry. He does this with quiet grace and openness.
Musically, he exudes that same grace and openness as he courageously stays in each moment. Always in tune with the room and the situation, he makes the song not just his own – but the listeners’ as well. In the music business there is always pressure to play something the same way each time. Willie makes sure he plays it the right way each time – not the same way. He moves air with his sound that penetrates us to our true self. And in my case awoke something that had been dying to come out for years.
So on yet another run of Willie Nelson birthday shows this upcoming week, I am very grateful for this true American treasure who is now turning 80 years old.