Next to Elvis Presley, teenagers repeatedly voted Rick Nelson the most popular rock star in magazine polls during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. He exuded cool vibrations despite being trapped in a cheesy TV sitcom about his family, “Ozzie and Harriet,” where the young Ricky Nelson would lip sync a song at the end of the episode. Nelson’s curled lip, bedroom eyes, moony demeanor, and impassive delivery made him seem, in the parlance of the time, dreamy. His television appearances boosted the sales of his records, which in turn would improve the TV show’s ratings.
Nelson scored several big hits while a TV star, including “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou”. He had 30 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1962. He continued making music after leaving the TV show in the ‘60s, but he only hit the pop charts once afterwards, with a tune about the perils of being an oldies star, “Garden Party”, in 1972. During the ‘60s Nelson was an underground phenomenon, who many credit as the true founder of country rock. While this may be arguable, Nelson’s importance cannot be overlooked. He entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during its second year of existence, alongside such luminaries as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Aretha Franklin.
Nelson has been largely forgotten by the masses due to the graying of his original audience and the lack of exposure new audiences have to his music. That’s a shame because Nelson was always much more than a cute boy singer. While he enjoyed the advantages of being white and on network TV during the ‘50s (i.e., his version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking” outsold the original), Nelson was not some cheesy slime ball, à la Pat Boone. Nelson had the charisma of danger. One could tell he was being boxed in on TV, and he wanted to explode. Bob Dylan, in his autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1 put it this way: “He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him. His voice was sort of mysterious and made you fall into a certain mood.” Dylan’s right on the mark. Nelson’s nonchalant personality suggested that the singer had a deep and enigmatic soul. Think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause as an equivalent young male ‘50s persona.
Easy to be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson doesn’t contain any big stars; Marshall Crenshaw and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen are among the best known artists. This 20-track tribute album is a low-key affair in other ways as well. The musicians generally perform acoustic versions of the songs at a slower pace than the originals. While it would be nice to hear someone do a rave up rendition of one of the tunes for variety, this does establish a continuity of tone throughout the volume.
The selections include material from every phase of Nelson’s career and reveal the depth of his talents. In particular, Nelson composed eight of the songs chosen. Although he started out playing other people’s tunes, Nelson was a more than capable tunesmith. He wrote the aforementioned “Garden Party”, with the classic line “But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck” as well as the breezy title song from this collection “Easy to be Free”. Jeff Mellin’s version of “Garden Party” and the Autumn Leaves’ “Easy to be Free” work well at communicating Nelson’s spirit, but the lesser known Nelson compositions work even better. Linda Draper’s skeletal arrangement (her voice, a guitar, and a bass) of “How Long” turns the meaning of time slowing down into a delicious heartache. Denny Sarokin makes “One Night Stand” into a country, truck drivin’, juke box melody. Crenshaw gives “Don’t Leave Me this Way” a Buddy Holly-like bounce.
Several of Nelson’s biggest hits aren’t included here, such as “I’m Walking”, “It’s Late”, “Be Bop Baby”, to make room for the songs he wrote and/or recorded through out his life (as his hits occurred during such a condensed time period). Still, hearing the familiar tunes in new renditions has rewards. Aaron Booth slows down “Hello Mary Lou”, which sweetens the sentiments and makes the declaration of love something deep and heartfelt. The band 1888 takes the same tack in “Travelin’ Man” so that lines like “Pretty Polynesian baby over the sea / I remember the night / When we walked in the sand of Waikiki / I held you oh so tight” drips from the tongue like syrup.
Other highlights include Michael Barrett’s (of Ladybug Transistor and Essex Green) gently percussive and erotic take on “Nighttime Lady”, McEuen’s rockabilly-tinged-with-gospel version of “Believe What You Say”, and Delorean’s sensitively articulated confession of love, “Are You Really Real?” There are a few duds. Oed Ronne (from the Ocean Blue) does an uninspired, by-the-numbers version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David pop soul song “Take a Broken Heart” that drones rather than cracks with emotion. But these missteps are few. On the whole, this is a fine tribute to Nelson. And as a bonus, $1.60 from the sale of Easy to be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson goes directly to Cancer Care to help those in need.