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It seems to be the season to flood the market with celebrations of the Red-Headed Stranger. These include The Essential Willie Nelson, one in an ongoing series of releases by Sony Music to deify its veteran artists; Crazy: The Demo Sessions, featuring a young Willie strumming tunes made famous by Patsy Cline, Ray Price and others in the early 1960s; and Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin', an album of live duets with Shania Twain, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones and a host of contemporary artists compiled from a USA cable-television special.
Nelson, however, has never been one to live in the past, moving from jacket-and-tie Nashville singer to burned-out Austin rebel to massive pop superstar to target of the IRS to icon who continues to perform. Despite the rearward-looking accolades he's getting now, however, Nelson's still moving forward, finding ways to build on his roughneck persona and shape the country mainstream. And here's where the real celebration of Nelson's elder status should commence: "Beer For My Horses," Nelson's duet with superstar rabble-rouser Toby Keith, is a great anthem, the best breakout single on country radio in ages. Yes, Willie's a bona fide star this week.
Keith, in his post-September 11 fervor, became the official mouthpiece for conservative fans last year with his "Courtesy of Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" and its famed sentiment "You'll be sorry/That you messed with The U.S. of A./'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/It's the American way." In the subsequent media exposure, Keith came off as alienating and shallow, a jingoistic jingler rather than a pickup-driving everyman.
He needed credibility, and fast. He recruited Nelson to write and record "Beer For My Horses" with him last summer, and the song sat, virtually unnoticed, a third of the way into Unleashed, Keith's album that used "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" as its lead track. Eventually, though, Dreamworks, Keith's label, and radio programmers discovered it; this week, it's the top single on country radio, according to Billboard, and is threatening to leap into the top 20 of the pop chart. In Phoenix, country station KNIX is playing it nearly 50 times a week, according to the station.
Keith may have been able to find an audience for the song on his own -- the three-and-half-minute, rollicking tune is filled with hooks and an engaging Western posse motif. But his opening stanza is too much like "Angry American," with its anger over current events. Country singer doesn't like what he sees on TV. Big deal.
Then it's Willie's turn. Suddenly, the song is transported to the high plains of the 1890s. The song begins to take on a transcendence. "They told my pappy, back in my day, son/A man had to answer for the wicked things he done," Willie sings in a low but stern voice. Its rasp sounds well earned, and the antiquated round-em-up and hang em tale is chilling as a result. The gravitas is effortless. He's the retired outlaw on the hill, contemplating the wrath of the modern world and channeling retribution toward all that riff-raff and those conspiring, invisible terrorists. Later, when Keith calls for "the long arm of the law" to "put a few more in the ground," Nelson promises to "send em all to their maker, and he'll settle them down." When Bush says something like that, it sounds like an idle threat; when monotone Willie says it, it sounds like a done deed.
When Keith and Nelson share the mike, the song segues into a badass celebration of vigilante justice, cashing in on Willie's vow to "meet back at the local saloon." "We'll raise up our glasses against evil forces/Singing whiskey for my men/Beer for my horses." That chorus is so completely respectful of country & western orthodoxy, you can almost taste the dust on the bar and the sweat in the glass.
"Beer For My Horses" builds on Nelson's undying gift for appropriation, something Keith must have counted on when he made the approach. Save for perhaps Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, Nelson is pop music's great interpreter. He controls every composition he touches, his and everybody else's. Seek out 1978's Stardust and 1979's Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson, and once you absorb those records, you'll never hear "Me and Bobby McGee" or "Someone to Watch Over Me" in quite the same way again.
The rush to shower Willie Nelson with honors will no doubt continue -- the 75th birthday bash may be even more intense. Next comes the singer's own tea party, a just-released album of new material recorded with Price, a longtime friend and collaborator, called Run That By Me One More Time. But fans should definitely take solace in knowing that Nelson will continue to build his legacy his own way. "Beer For My Horses," in that regard, is a revelation.