11 April 2010
Willie Nelson: Still America's Voice
I've been reading and hearing a lot lately about how divided America has become in recent times. The hostility toward President Obama's health care reform, the Tea Party movement, Fox News and all that; it's nearly impossible to escape without isolating yourself from the Internet, TV, radio and printed publications. I was reminded this morning of Bruce Robison's clever tribute song, What Would Willie Do. Bruce ruminates, "You know sometimes I wonder when I ain't gettin' nowhere/What would old Willie do when it all gets too much to bear?" I've been feeling lately like I "ain't gettin' nowhere" discussing these issues, and so I took today to turn to Willie.
Emmylou Harris once remarked that, "If America had a voice, it would be Willie's," and I think that's true. Over the years, Willie has stood for nearly everyone at one time or another. He was one of Charley Pride's earliest supporters, famously kissing him on stage to quell the discontent of a racist crowd. His relationship with his--and our--Native American heritage is well documented. He even gave a somewhat controversial shout-out to gays with Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond Of Each Other in 2006. As Bruce Robison noted, "He loves all the people, no matter their races/Hell, he even made a hit country song with Julio Iglesias/and that ain't easy to do."
Then I got to remembering an anecdote that Steve Earle once shared about Willie. Earle had gone to see Willie perform at a club in Texas back during the heyday of the Outlaw movement, which curiously attracted two very different audiences: rednecks and hippies. These two were (and are) diametrically opposed to one another, and in the 1970s, violence was always a few beers away. Anyway, on the occasion of Earle's witnessing, the hippies wanted to sit and listen to Willie, and the rednecks wanted to dance. They harangued one another, until finally Willie halted the performance to address his audience. "There's room for some to sit, and for some to dance," Willie admonished. And, just like that, the hippies returned to sitting peaceably and the rednecks to dancing merrily.
In our national discussion, it's a shame that we're told that either the hippies won't let us dance, or that the rednecks don't want to let us sit. When I ask myself, "What would Willie do?" I'm forced to answer: He would tell us there's room enough for some to sit, and for some to dance. This is America, after all, and he is still our voice.