What do you say to someone who lost all her belongings, her house, her souvenirs and two pets in an electrical fire? Tracy Nelson seems to understand how hard it is for an interviewer to stammer out a question. When inspiration finally comes — in the form of an instantly regretted, "How are things going?" — she snorts with laughter.
"Yeah," she says. " 'What's new?' "
What's new is that on June 5, a muggy Saturday night a month after the flooding that wracked Middle Tennessee, Nelson was upstairs reading in the farmhouse she shares with her longtime partner and producer Mike Dysinger. Just after 10 p.m., she smelled paper burning. She opened the bedroom door to check it out, only to be greeted by curls of black smoke.
Nelson is a revered blues singer and country-soul vocalist now in the fifth decade of a hugely underrated career. She lives in the community of Burns, Tenn., near Dickson, and the century-old farmhouse held touchstones from every period of her life. The living room had her grandmother's baby grand piano, on which she practiced music as a girl in Wisconsin. Dysinger's home studio had all the tracks for her new album, which she'd been working on for more than a year.
In between was a lifetime of what Nelson ruefully calls "stuff" — everything from family photos to Fillmore memorabilia from her early days with the seminal country-rock band Mother Earth in the San Francisco counterculture.
With flames visible and the heat getting more intense, Nelson managed to make it downstairs and call 911. "God bless the Burns Volunteer Fire Department," she says. To Nelson's astonishment, and gratitude, the volunteers arrived almost instantly and took charge. With the flames spreading, they asked what room she wanted them to save most. She pointed them to Dysinger's studio.
When the smoke cleared, Nelson took stock of the damage. Vintage blues recordings — gone. Her vinyl copies of all her own albums — gone. Posters, a box of priceless family pictures, a photo of her singing onstage with Jimi Hendrix — gone. (She thinks she has another copy.) She and Dysinger saved nine of their 11 dogs and cats, but two dogs didn't make it.
"They were young," she says. "They ran and hid instead of running out." She cannot say more.
Perhaps saddest, though, was her grandmother's 109-year-old piano. When Nelson asked a firefighter if they'd been able to save it, he just shook his head. It'll now have to be taken apart with an axe to be removed — a sight she can't bring herself to see.
What has happened since, though, has left Nelson feeling not just humbled but uncharacteristically sentimental. First, some of her Burns neighbors offered her and Dysinger a rental house directly across the street from the farmhouse — and refused to take a cent. Then fans all over the world began sending her everything from a few dollars to replacement copies of her records — all accompanied by notes that stunned Nelson with their affection and sincerity.
"People I'd never heard of were sending me checks in the mail, telling me how much I meant to them," she says. "I can't describe what it's like when you discover something like that."
The most public show of support, however, will come at this weekend’s benefit concert 6:30 p.m. Sunday at B.B. King’s on Second Avenue, which is proving to be as much a reunion as a call to action. Fittingly enough, the concert takes its name from her Grammy-winning 1975 duet with Willie Nelson — “After the Fire Is Gone.” Organized by Gina Hughes, it summons friends and admirers from all stations of her career.
So far, the guest list includes Delbert McClinton, Steve Cropper, Lee Roy Parnell, Jimmy Hall, Kentucky Thunder, Shaun Murphy, Rickey Godfrey, Johnny Neel, Nick Nixon, Mac Gayden, The Bart Walker Band with Reese Wynans, and Steve Forbert. Sadly, the event will commemorate another tragedy: the sudden death last weekend of Dennis Taylor, the greatly admired saxophonist who was scheduled to perform with McClinton's band. His wife, Nashville publicist/songwriter Karen Leipziger, has been helping with the benefit.
On a happier note, Nelson will be reunited with former Nashvillian and close friend Dianne Davidson, with whom she used to perform high-profile gigs at the Bluebird and other local clubs.
"I said to Mike, 'We must be nicer than we think,' " Nelson says — a joke that comes off sounding shyly serious.
Proceeds from the $25 tickets will go toward rebuilding the house, whose sturdy oak frame stood firm. More information can be found at www.afterthefireisgone.com. Donations can be sent directly to P.O. Box 128, Burns, TN 37029.
Ironically enough, the title of her new album — the one that survived the fire — is Victim of the Blues. Asked if the blues was a salve to her throughout the long, painful months after the fire, her response is quick and quintessentially blunt:
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