WILLIE NELSON SHOTGUN WILLIE, 1973, Atlantic Records
Most of the time here at VINE-YL, we choose a record first, then select a wine that we feel matches it. This Thanksgiving, however, we flipped the script. Turkey Day is all about Beaujolais, and Sara had already picked out a fine one for us to get our dinner started days in advance. The challenge was an interesting one, not only selecting music based on the inherent qualities of a traditional French Gamay, but also finding the quintessential soundtrack for that most peculiar, but best American holiday.
Thanksgiving, despite its origin as a schmaltzy cover-up for Indian massacre, continues to celebrate whatever is still good, sincere and likeable in American culture. Though chain stores, shopping malls, television networks and Christmas decoration factories would hurry it on its way, if not dispense with it altogether in favor of one long uninterrupted cash-in-hand processional to the Christ King’s coronation; Thanksgiving endures. It is a beleaguered, but venerable sage, comfortably fixed, unflappable, entrenched—like Plymouth Rock itself, no matter how many greedy rubes tread over it thoughtlessly on their march to dreamed-of riches. As long as there is such a thing in this world as a Pumpkin Spice Latte, Thanksgiving will abide.
For me, America is defined by its music and its fictive mythos. Thanksgiving is the time these forces converge, and I allow myself, assisted by a turntable on heavy rotation and a wine glass on automatic pilot, a lazy, inebriated vision of the mythical, storybook, bullshit epic of my country. A tale told in song, an American idyll uttered by a wagon train of voices heading West, from CROTOAN, to the City on a Hill, to Manhattan and Brooklyn, to Philadelphia (as a guest of Bunny Sigler), through the Shenandoah Valley, down the Carolinas through the Great Smoky Mountains to Music City, U.S.A; then on to New Orleans by way of Muscle Shoals, up to Memphis, Kansas City and Chicago, hopping a boxcar into the Blue Canadian Rockies, across the Great Divide, through the Donner Pass into San Francisco, hitching a ride somewhere near Salinas, settling, finally, where it belongs, where America was always meant to live: Los Angeles.
There’s something serenely life-affirming about Thanksgiving in L.A., and it’s not just because the light has that goldenrod softness or because it gets dark so early. It’s like the end of the dream, the last chapter of a manifest, communal destiny. Everyone smiling smugly to one another, perhaps wearing sweaters, an air of earned self-satisfaction lingering over the dinner table. Proud, patient, knowing smiles that say, “We’ve gone as far as we can, we restless children of light. We'd go further if we could 'cause the pioneer spirit burns strong in our souls. But then we’d be in Hawaii. And where would we go for Christmas?"
Willie Nelson embodies America, in a way only rare artists do. Not by writing sprawling anthems (though some might consider “City of New Orleans” one), but by being a single, stubborn, iconic and iconoclastic outlaw; a wholly committed free individual. Shotgun Willie is a subtle album. Its cover--Willie grinning out from twin shotgun barrels--promises an ornery bourbon-fueled honky-tonk. Instead, the title track—perhaps the hardest rocker on the album—is a breezy, horn-backed, borderline silly portrait of a racist redneck (the singer lampooning himself?) with a nice guitar solo, a bass line that lurches like a lazy fat ass down hot concrete, and the memorably simple line, “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got something to say…” Hardly a shotgun blast to your cerebral cortex...
But what follows is an album of effortless beauty, its arrangements folksy but skillful, the playing light but deceptively complex. All the songs are personal statements, most of them love songs on the right or the wrong side of love, the wrong side usually presaged by a visit from the Devil in one form or another. But all are full of a clear, laconic, utterly beguiling honesty that will stand up to anything. Humble, self-deprecating, sincere, Shotgun Willie slowly unfolds, song after song, an unexpected depth that builds to the album closer, “A Song For You,” one of the prettiest songs you’ll ever hear, in America or anywhere else, just Willie and his guitar making magic.