willie nelson: jam band jammer?

willie nelson: jam band jammer?

Extremely excited to publish a new guest post on le blog today. This one comes from Danny Robbins, a video editor in Myrtle Beach, SC last seen in this blog recommending me a favorite song of 2023, who is about to make a very compelling case for Willie Nelson (and his family band) being included in the jam band pantheon.

Willie Nelson is one of those artists whose body of work and corresponding lore is so large that it kind of intimidates me as a whole, so I always appreciate when such an artist's work can be filtered through another fan's perspective, rather than facing down a novel-length Wikipedia discography page with zero context. Danny does a great job pinpointing something specific about Willie's oeuvre—that some of his tunes have jam credentials up there with Phish and the Dead—and also offers up a Willie Jam Band playlist to prove his point.

Danny also, in his own words, "recently got so desperate to talk about music that he convinced his best friend Julius Jefferson to start a music podcast together." This podcast is called The Good Music Show; each episode revolves around both hosts sharing an album or short playlist with each other, then discussing those traded musical listening experiences. More info on that after the blog...first, pump up the jam...

Willie Nelson and Family: American Jam Band

Willie Nelson is American music. American music is a lot of different things, especially in the year 2024, but Willie was born in 1933. He is still on stage picking his guitar artfully and leading huge audiences in sing-alongs to some of the finest songs of all time. Many of them he wrote himself: “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Many he didn’t write: “Always on My Mind,” “Georgia.” “Whiskey River.” But if you ask a group of people, some would be so sure that he did write them; or would at least declare that he has the definitive version of them. I think it is worth paying attention to a guy who has been playing music for the vast majority of his 90 years on Earth, began a proper music career over 60 years ago, and has never stopped doing it. When you live in a world with unlimited music, it takes a lot to decide to do a deep dive on an artist, but for fans of jam-infused Americana (Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Vampire Weekend, The Band), allow me to pitch a Willie Nelson deep dive. It may be just what you are looking for.

To be honest, my first in depth experience with listening to Willie Nelson was underwhelming. I watched his 2019 appearance on Austin City Limits. He played a selection of crowd pleasers, and “Fly Me to the Moon” from his first Frank Sinatra tribute album. I remember the main thing going through my head while watching was how age was limiting him. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy it, but I couldn’t get past the idea that he could be struggling. Sure, age is a hindrance—nowadays he sits to perform and according to those close to him it has helped immensely with his singing and guitar playing. But regardless of my fixation on that, the crowd loved watching Willie, and Willie loved performing for that crowd - just watch this beautiful performance of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” from that taping.

I didn’t give up on ol’ Willie, I just didn’t “get” it yet—just like how country music fans didn’t “get” it at first either, from the start of his career to the early '70s when he struggled to break out as a performing artist. That struggle nearly led him to retire from music, and excessive drinking and depression almost ended his life.

The “Willie Nelson and Family” band formed after several life-changing moments. Willie’s house outside of Nashville burned down, driving him to give up on the star-making town and move to Texas. He ended his contract with RCA, and signed to Atlantic with full creative control. With that creative control, that meant he could record whatever with whoever he wanted. The first thing he did was record an album of gospel songs with his sister Bobbie Nelson on piano—going back to the roots of where he learned to play and sing. This reunion was significant for reasons outlined in Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band—a great book that really demonstrates how pure of a soul Bobbie Nelson was even through enduring some deeply traumatic times.

Paul English (drums) and Bee Spears (bass) remained on the lineup from his old band The Record Men. Jody Payne (guitar) and Mickey Raphael (harmonica) round out the core lineup. Other people have done stints in the band as well, including legendary guitarist Grady Martin (accidental innovator of fuzz guitar) and fiddler Johnny Gimble. At one point, captured on the album Willie and Family Live, there were two drummers and two bassists on stage together. Sounds like a jam band to me!

Back in July 2023 a question was posed by podcaster Jack Wagner: “serious question: if the grateful dead is not the greatest band of all time from the united states then who is?” This question was discussed by this very website, among all sorts of music enjoyers who couldn’t help but chime in. It’s a question that can’t really be answered, which is what makes it so frustrating AND fun. But it was the idea of the Grateful Dead being considered as a contender for “the greatest” that intrigued me. Yes, their merch is everywhere—they have an intensely devoted fan base, and a lineup composed of talented musicians who mastered the esoteric art of musical improvisation. I’m sure if I was able to see them live I would have very different feelings about them, especially if I saw this set where Willie sat in for El Paso and Ripple. But the unavoidable truth is how many people trash this band, their music, and the culture around it. It’s too much baggage for GOAT status in my humble opinion. But, those who disagree have one point in their favor that I can never deny or discount. If the jam overtakes you, there is no going back. 

The art of the “jam” is something that I discovered in college. During a late-night homework crunch at the library, I decided to put on some Phish in the background. As a fan of the late Harris Wittels and the “Analyze Phish” podcast, I had come around liking some of their stuff. I found a YouTube recording of “You Enjoy Myself,” and all of sudden the background music came into the forefront as the noodling got more intense. Trey let his guitar ring out a high pitched note for several seconds. And then it started to build up to the funky section where the lyrics begin. The buildup was so intense and visceral—Trey encapsulated exactly what I was feeling when he screamed “OH MY GOD” before busting into the funky breakdown, pausing to sum up human life as we know it in 4 words: “Boy…Man...God… Shit…”

I was completely enraptured and this feeling is something I am constantly chasing. From the 3-piece reggae jam band Aaron Kamm and the One Drops that I saw multiple times in college, to more recently seeing the reigning king of jam-bluegrass Billy Strings open up for Willie Nelson on the Outlaw Music Festival tour. All music fans should open themselves up to the art of the jam—it’s what allows music to become more than a fleeting sound in the background. The jam makes music into a feeling, and often, a memory. The great thing is that stereotypical jam bands are not the only avenues to finding good jams, for those who can’t make themselves enjoy 20 minutes of noodling. Soul, bluegrass, country, funk, even classical music probably has jam elements to it! But how does Willie Nelson fit into this?

I made a playlist to help me think about this, and like every Willie show since probably the early '70s, it opens with "Whiskey River." In true jam band fashion, Willie would end his main set by reprising it. The ultimate Willie jam is "Bloody Mary Morning," so I couldn’t help but include 3 versions of it.

Take the 8-minute version from the ‘83 US Festival. It starts with the bluegrass inspired “G run” and not even 2 minutes in, the jam starts. Forget about the incredible wordsmithing in the lyrics, listen to Mickey Raphael make that harmonica chug like a train. Then Willie and Jody Payne join forces with a twin guitar riff. As it builds further and further, teasing “Joy to the World” for some reason, it peaks just shy of the seven minute mark with 45 straight seconds of euphoria. 

That US Festival set is a bit rough around the edges, fair enough. The Willie and Family Live album from ‘78 has a much cleaner and tighter sound to it. Many have pointed out that Willie sings so far in front and behind the beat so he can make ample room for his top priority, playing guitar. This is perfectly encapsulated by Willie’s version of “Night Life” on this album.

“Night Life” is the final song in a suite of Willie’s three huge early career songs, which starts with “Funny How Time Slips Away” and then goes into “Crazy.” In this performance, you can really hear Willie and his guitar, named “Trigger,” communicating with each other, particularly when Willie asks you to “listen to the blues they’re playin’, and listen to what the blues are sayin’.” When the blues are talking, I sit my white ass down and listen.

Closing the playlist is a slow blues jam. You can practically feel the smoke in the room listening to this track. Included at the end of The Complete Atlantic Sessions, it follows an incredible collection of live recordings that will melt your face off. This song will help you put all your pieces back together (à la the Drake Sprite commercial) and come back down to reality feeling better than ever.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 5 years listening to Willie Nelson. I’ve even read a few books by him, and the massive biography written by Joe Nick Patoski. I have plenty of evidence to declare that Willie Nelson lives and breathes music, that is why he is still out there doing shows. He still writes and records, he uplifts other artists coming up in his tradition of progressive country. But crucially, he is still out there jamming.

Thank you Danny! Spin some Willie jams, then check out Danny's podcast The Good Music Show, co-hosted by Julius Jefferson. A description from Danny: "Each episode they give each other an album or short playlist based around a theme, then talk about the music and artists that make it. They’ll cover a wide spread of artists that they care deeply about: from 2Pac to Willie Nelson, John Prine to Donna Summer, Ray Charles to Future. Keeping an open mind to new styles allows Danny and Julius, as well as listeners, the opportunity to step out of those individualized music bubbles created by social media and find new music to love. Follow us @thegmspod on Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter - we can be found on all podcast platforms."