A reviewer recently called Tracy Nelson “the queen of what we now call Americana music.” If so, it was news to Her Majesty. “I’ve never had any play on Americana,” says the salty, blessedly plainspoken Nelson, the powerhouse vocalist best known for her blues records. “I think I make perfect sense in that format, but what do I know? When I cut ‘After the Fire Is Gone,’ I thought it was just the goofiest thing.”
Instead, that 1974 recording—a lusty cover of the Loretta Lynn-Conway Twitty duet, with Willie Nelson (no relation) as partner—earned Nelson a hit as well as her first Grammy nomination. It also showcased her ease in straddling genres: it was a country song with hard rootsy backing, anchored by the singer’s bluesy belting. But after many years of touring and recording as a blues singer, Nelson has a new country album, You’ll Never Be a Stranger at My Door, that’s both a homecoming and a coronation.
A collection of 10 country classics and one self-penned ringer, Stranger may be the most relaxed record Nelson has ever made. Recorded with producer Mike Dysinger, engineer George Bradfute and a fleet of Nashville session stalwarts, from keyboardist Steve Conn to multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, the album has the homey, unhyped feel of music made on and for front porches. Included are a rollicking Louisiana-hayride take on Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” a conversational saunter through Ella Mae Morse’s jazzy “Cow Cow Boogie,” and—perhaps most surprising—a loving version of The Browns’ church-going weepie “The Three Bells.”
The record closes the circle of Nelson’s career, dating back to her late-1960s days with the San Francisco roots group Mother Earth. Though she came up at the legendary Fillmore alongside Hendrix, Joplin and the cream of flower power’s heyday, the Wisconsin-bred singer felt out of step with the counterculture.
“We were probably the straightest hippies you’d ever meet,” Nelson says, laughing. In 1969, the band went to Nashville—a bold move for interracial longhairs—to record their groundbreaking country-rock record Make a Joyful Noise. Other than getting booted from the hippie-hating Pancake Pantry, she remembers the city back then as “so warm and welcoming, no attitude at all.”
Nelson stayed to make the superb Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country album, and she has lived in Middle Tennessee ever since, largely on a farm in Dickson County. Throughout the ’90s, she recorded albums drawing on her background in Chicago’s early-1960s blues scene, picking up another Grammy nomination for her trio record with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas. But she says she loved getting back to country music.
“It was just so…easy,” Nelson says. After two years touring with the Chicago Blues Revue—an all-star assemblage she describes as “the sherbet course of my career”—she wanted a change. She ended up in the archive of country-music historian Robert K. Oermann, gathering enough songs for three records.
Closest to Nelson’s heart is “Salt of the Earth,” the one song on the record she co-wrote. An elegy for three Dickson County neighbors—including one, Brown Hill, who once rescued her and her pets from a flooding creek—it sent her to longtime friend Guy Clark for help with the verses. He lent his craggy recitation to the recording, joined by Alice Newman Vestal, a neighbor girl Nelson watched grow up from infancy. The result, rich with personal detail, mourns the passing of a legacy—pure Americana material.
Radio and audience reception has been strong enough that Nelson may record another country LP, and possibly an album of her own songs and a long-imagined jazz album, a different kind of singing than she’s done lately. But different sounds good to her these days. For comfort, there’s always her garden, her dogs and her secret vices: Reba reruns, which she’s plotted out in the schedule as diligently as a cartographer. She’s earned the right, as she’ll be happy to tell you.
“I’m 62,” Nelson says. “I can do whatever the fuck I want to do.” —Jim Ridley
well fuck you anon! Go and Catch fire!
The guitar is a custom made Gretsch he used on the Raconteurs tours...sweet. I couldn't…
I knew him before the beard.
Sometimes I think snowman69 makes good points. But I think he's way off the mark…