TWO WAYS TO APPROACH FAME (WILLIE NELSON VERSUS BOB DYLAN)
OK, that was a trap, now wasn’t it? No one should ever write the words Willie Nelson VERSUS Bob Dylan. :-) For musicianship, I would go with Willie just for his Django Reinhart riffs alone (which I am trying to steal to this day), but as a writer, it’s impossible to compare this caliber of artists. The lyrics for Dylan’s first four records changed the face of music, might have even cracked the sky in half for a minute. (A scrap of my favorite Dylan lyrics are below — and his collected lyrics are one of the favorite books in my library — endlessly inspiring). I’m not sure there has ever been a better or more prolific lyricist. Yet for pure melody — Willie’s written some of the most gorgeous melodies around. And talk about complexity that sounds simple … the song “Crazy” has 13 chords in it. I’ve heard musicians talk about how simple country music is, but not Willie’s brand of country. It’s not “three chords and the truth.” Willie uses 13 chords and the truth. That being said, Dylan is one of the most covered artists in the world, and you don’t get that honor without timeless melody. But for the purposes of this blog it’s gonna come down to live shows and how you treat people.
As a PERFORMING ARTIST, I’m gonna give it to the Red-Headed Stranger every time, mostly because of this story right here. (If you have a good Dylan or Willie story and/or you think I’ve lost my mind, hit me up at gooding(at)goodingmusic.com.)
I am friends with a cat named Jeff Corbett out of our old hometown of Wichita, Kansas. Jeff may be the hardest working man in show business. He runs a sound company called TourBox. He is a fantastic guitarist in his own right, can fix anything, and can figure out anything. (Despite the fact that he once turned north instead of south in KC on I-35 and we woke up heading full speed toward Canada instead of Kansas at five a.m., he is brilliant and one in a million.)
Jeff worked crew for the AA ball stadium tour that Dylan and Nelson did in Wichita years back. I imagine Jeff knew every crew guy there, and so I consider having this story on good accord.
Dylan’s manager came out of his bus and warned the crew, “Depending on which way Dylan has his cowboy hat pointed signifies whether or not he wants people to look him in the eye today.”
Now let me say, I can’t possibly imagine what it’s like spending 90 percent of your life with people trying to look deep inside of your soul — 90 percent of your life with people wanting your complete attention, all your wisdom, something to sell on eBay, anything from you. Can you imagine being Dylan? A guy who an entire generation at one point started to believe had the answers, the key to everything! At one point fans were breaking into his house to ask him what the future was. Going through his mail in his trash for clues. This has got to mess with you. If your artists go swim in the deep end, face the darkness, slay the dragons, and bring you back some wisdom, you gotta give ’em a little space and some time to think.
But, folks, we choose to tour. We choose to ask you to get out your hard-earned money (and when someone works a minimum-wage job to pay for a hundred-dollar ticket, that’s hard-earned money). My dream is that somehow you can share your gifts with the world and still retain 100 percent of your joy, your humanity, and have a little fun along the way; that you can want to meet strangers (especially the ones building your stage) even after decades on the road.
Hearing Corbett’s Dylan story, my great fear was that Willie Nelson did something similar that day. But I have always loved Willie, heard so many great stories of his kindness and openness with his fans. I listened to “Always on My Mind” growing up about nine million times. I once watched Willie sign autographs at a show in Wichita through the night ’til his wrinkled hands were black and blue. And as a former manager, Stephanie Green, once told me, “If you are a total dick and then get a little more kind, the people will love you. Love you. But if you are amazing to people your entire career and then turn on them even a little, they will burn you at the stake.”
Well, folks, Willie passed my goofy little road test with flying colors. Corbett said that Willie came out with a bucket of chicken, walked down the stage ramps and over to the electricians working up the show, and said deadpan, “You guys want some chicken?”
My faith in mankind was safe. My belief in Willie Nelson at 100 percent. I think I’ll go steal some more of his jokes right now.
Postscript: My drummer, Jesse, met Willie down in Harker heights, Texas, and said he was as calm, giving, and wonderful as you would want or could possibly imagine.
Another postscript: More on Willie and Dylan (I’m sure) in about every other blog I write. I can’t imagine this world without either of them. They have both been towering figures for me as a writer and as a human being. Their songs are beacons in the dark night, religions, true gifts, and blessings to me almost on a daily basis.
Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one
I’m goin’ back out before the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color and none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breath it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
— “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” Bob Dylan
And if you are a fellow Willie fan like me, check out this beautiful piece in Texas Monthly, which goes in-depth on Willie’s guitar, Trigger.
(This post originally appeared on our blog.)