Nelson’s late-career creative revitalization has been a thrill to experience in real time.
By the mid-‘90s, Willie Nelson’s career was generally spoken of in the past tense, his best work more than a decade behind him. For him and fellow outlaws such as Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, the changing tide of country music as the ‘70s rolled over into the ‘80s proved a nearly insurmountable obstacle as younger artists began exploring more of a rock and pop-oriented sound, culminating in the early-‘90s rise of Garth Brooks. Instead of looking to keep up with prevailing trends, however, both Cash and Nelson underwent something of a reinvention, stripping the music to its barest essentials to create a sound both raw and lived in. While Cash looked to others for musical inspiration with such unlikely collaborators as Nine Inch Nails, Nelson, beginning with the superlative Spirit (1996), went back to writing the concise songs of heartache and regret that he did so well. Joining forces with producer/musician Daniel Lanois on Teatro, Nelson produced created a collection of songs that felt more alive than anything he’d recorded in years. This back-to-basics approach dovetailed nicely with the burgeoning alt.country scene, allowing Nelson to be acknowledged as a founding father and guiding light. Enlisting the help of Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals and a crack band of musicians including Lanois on guitar, Nelson put together an impressive return to form that reinvigorated his career.
It’s fitting, then, that Teatro consists of old and new material, all performed and recorded live in an old California movie theatre that gave the album its name. Reaching back more than 30 years, he revisited “Darkness on the Face of the Earth,” a track – along with “Three Days,” also present here – first heard on his 1962 debut, …And Then I Wrote. Neither a career summation nor a half-hearted victory lap, its performance – along with nearly everything else here – shows how continuously vital and relevant Nelson’s writing is, was and remains to this day.
Of course, at the heart of Nelson’s appeal is his inimitable voice – a weathered, craggy nasal twang – and idiosyncratic phrasing, working always slightly ahead of or behind the beat. Long known for his collaborative spirit, it’s still a thrill to watch as others work in and around his approach. Throughout Teatro, Harris can be heard making hesitant entrances, unsure of the precise placement of her harmonies due to Nelson’s approach. Far from being sloppy, this offers and enduring quality made all the more so by Wim Wenders’ accompanying film documenting the album’s recording process.
Often singing with his eyes closed, Nelson seems unaware of Harris’ side-long glances to ensure her vocal timing. To see someone of Harris’ caliber showing any signs of hesitancy – her crystalline voice being as purely country an instrument as Nelson’s – is to experience the creative process from the inside, having been granted a rare look behind the curtain as a pair of legends – and one legendary producer – work together to create something magical.
From album opener “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? (Where Are You, My Love?)” to the closing “Annie,” Teatro offers listeners a series of sounds at once familiar and lived-in, yet very much unlike much of Nelson’s output in the preceding decade. Indeed, since the creative resurgence and one-two combination of Spirit and Teatro, Nelson has gone on to release some of the best work of his career (and admittedly some of the worst and weirdest, as with the reggae-country of Countryman…), all the way through to God’s Problem Child this year. A true music legend, Nelson’s late-career creative revitalization has been a thrill to experience in real time.