Willie Nelson has always been a populist. Thus, it’s not surprising to find out that so, too, is his Jesus: partially Christ, completely Cowboy. The religious music on The Troublemaker may have been born in the church, but it’s hardly the stuff of organized religion. The attitude, the joy, the freedom imbuing every song flows could hardly be contained by lofting apse or revivalist tent. Willie’s is a Holy Spirit that settles in the mystic glow of the campfire, the God that appears in transcendental moments where a perfect guitar scale segues into the sweet tones of a plaintive harmonica. Nelson’s Father is hardly one who chastises his young into subservient submission; instead a Loving Parent looks on in sad commentary on how most of a current generation has misunderstood the import of the message he hopes to transmit. And, in title track and eponym, Willie himself is incarnate as the Son, The Troublemaker whose long-haired, peaceful approach of love just might make him crucified pariah.
Such is the theology at the heart of Willie’s little-known 1973 religious statement, The Troublemaker. Re-packaged, re-mastered and re-released by Sony earlier this month, this unfortunately overlooked classic is receiving a new shot at grace more than 30 years after its original recording. Willie’s brilliant Church-cum-Gospel foray was captured in the studio within a year of his definitive The Red Headed Stranger, prior to the landmark Stardust. The album—mostly a songbook of traditional American religious music—demonstrates the indefatigable clinging to personal inclination that has made Willie Nelson the respected artist he was finally allowed to become when signing to Columbia just prior to Stranger. Part country album, part gospel record, part protest rally, and mostly a celebration of the spirit (and The Spirit), The Troublemaker represents an artistic statement so audacious in its choice of integrity over irony that Columbia originally kept it on the shelf for over two years before releasing it in 1976 to keep up with the overwhelming demand for new Nelson material.
The Troublemaker is mostly celebratory: from the opening lines of “Uncloudy Day” through to the last ringing chorus of “Precious Memories”, even the non-believer is called into the chorus. (Try not to sing along.) But the album is hardly just a songfest: Willie’s guitar lick that begins the calling of the “Roll Up Yonder” reminds us that Nelson’s mid-‘70s family was, pardon the phrase, one hell of a band. Both Willie and Larry Gatlin play consistently perfect guitar parts, the uncredited harmonica sounds of Mickey Raphael are as always right-on, and sister Bobbie’s piano playing never sounds more appropriate than when barrelhouse-ing her way through to the “Sweet Bye and Bye”. The music on Troublemaker is a substantial as it is ethereal: a tight band brings to timeless songs a style, feel, and talent all their own. Willie testifies to this truth not only through the eleven original album tracks, but also via the superb addition of live versions of these songs caught at the Texas Opry House. These four additional takes on tradition prove that, indeed, this is a band blessed with amazing grace.
But the music is only a vehicle for the message. The centerpiece of The Troublemaker, both temporally and thematically, is its title track. The song describes many people’s savior, whose “Hair was too long / And whose motley group of friends / Had nothing but trouble on their minds.” This never-named nomad “Goes from town to town / Stirring up the young folks / ‘Til they’re nothing but a disrespectful mob”; the narrator knows “For sure he’s never joined the army / And served his country like we all have done,” preferring instead to “wear his sandals and his flowers”. And how is this troublemaker repaid? He’s banished from Nashville to Austin; I mean, from Jerusalem to Calvary. Here, the symbolism could hardly be more straightforward.
In his promised land of Texas, the Willie Nelson who struggled his way through the circuit of country songwriters died and was re-born as the Red Headed Stranger—most certainly “the trouble-making kind”. In tribute to the power that brought him grace in the eyes of the world that waited to worship him, Nelson tucked away in his studio and recorded his own gift of tribute to that power in the world that allows all those who are shunned to discover new life and be redeemed through the understanding millions who come, only later, to realize the truth. Shelved in their own time, these recording are now resurrected for the light of day. And while this might not be a historical event deserving of Easter’s commemoration, it at the very least merits a listen to an excellent record that captures what a Gospel singer might be tempted to call the soul of a man.