By the mid-’90s, Willie Nelson had found himself muddling through, putting a series of so-so albums that did little to further his legendary status, let alone argue for his continued relevance within an increasingly pop-oriented country music business. All of this changed with the release of Spirit in 1996. A stark, moody album of lyrical brilliance and understated musical approach that immediately brought Nelson’s creative output back into relevance, much in the same way Rick Rubin would aid an ailing Johnny Cash after a similar period spent in a creative desert. He, like Cash, would continue his winning streak with the release of 1998’s Teatro, an album heavily indebted to its predecessor in terms of sound and feel, harkening back to Nelson’s ’70s heyday. That the recordings were captured for posterity by Wim Wenders inside the theatre that lent the album its name helps add to the often-startling intimacy, providing a chance to peak behind the curtain to see just what goes into producing an album as naked as this.
For the recording of what would become
Teatro, Nelson and producer Daniel Lanois elected to take over an unused movie theatre in Oxnard, California. Aiming for what they conceived as a cinematic sound and feel, the empty theatre seemed as good a place as any to capture just the right atmosphere. Adding to this, they landed on recording the entirety of the album live amidst the red velvet seats of the Teatro. This rawness lends the recordings an urgency and an ever-present threat of going off the rails – words dropped, cues missed and flubbed notes captured for posterity – but also a relaxed, confident air that permeates the whole of the album (the jazz-indebted ballad “Home Motel” is particularly brilliant in its stark simplicity).
Newly reissued by the folks at Light in the Attic,
Teatro – The Complete Sessions here is presented as both sound and vision, Wenders’ film accompanying the remastered recording, and seven previously unissued tracks. To watch the recording process is to fully inhabit the world in which the music of Teatro was created and captured. As the camera pans across the performers, you’re able to watch Emmylou Harris looking to Nelson for cues as to when she is to come in vocally. There’s a delicate uncertainty on her entrances, Nelson’s notoriously behind-the-beat style making true harmonic collaboration very nearly impossible. But she still gamely follows throughout, her eyes keyed in on Nelson as he loses himself in the song (“My Own Peculiar Way”, in particular, offers a prime example of just this).
Harris’ presence here adds another level of country royalty, herself having experienced renewed critical interest in the wake of her Lanois-produced
Wrecking Ball. Able to harmonize with seemingly everyone with whom she works, she sounds particularly inspired when paired with Nelson, her voice gently seeping into the cracks of his iconic nasal twang. “I Never Cared For You”, a song that had been in the Nelson catalog for some time prior to its recording here, bristles with an immediacy and intimacy, the brushed snare insistently pushing the melody forward, Nelson and Harris intertwining their vocals with a subtle sophistication and Nelson’s own rhythmically dangerous guitar solo lending the track a heightened thrill in its potential to come fully undone.
Given Lanois’ involvement in Harris’
Wrecking Ball, he proves to be a particularly inspired choice to capture what can be seen as the umpteenth phase of Nelson’s career, one built on knowing collaborations that have continued to the present day. Indeed, the one-two pairing of Spirit and Teatro seem to have rejuvenated interest not only in Nelson but Nelson’s interest in the music he was capable of producing. Rather than resting on his laurels – something he no doubt would’ve been more than entitled to by the time the ’90s rolled around – he once more proved himself to be a vital creative force. Just listen to the emotional tenderness with which he and Harris sing “Everywhere I Go” or the shit-kicking blues that underscores “Darkness on the Face of the Earth”. The latter in particular is a savvy choice, going all way back to his 1962 debut, And Then I Wrote, showing the continued relevance of both Nelson the writer and Nelson the performer.
And while the following decades would be littered with setbacks and questionable collaborations – see 2005’s reggae-themed
Countryman, an album that still seems baffling in its very existence more than a decade on, the only connection between the two being the laidback rhythm and copious cannabis consumption – the late 1990s can be seen as a renaissance for Nelson. Furthermore, given the sheer volume of material he continues to produce annually, the fact that he’s still able to, in 2017, well over half a century into his career, record an album like this year’s God’s Problem Child is a testament not only to his seemingly bottomless creativity but his pure passion for the music itself. Just watch the glint in his eye as he leads the band through songs both new and old on Teatro.