The country’n’western star leaves Nashville for an audience of awfully dull types who look as though they’d suffer anyone so long as the dinner satisfies…
“Nah…I don’t like country’n’western!” To that, I offer Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. Not just a great country’n’western album but an outstanding American recording, Red Headed Stranger is the album that Craven and Jedburgh sing along to in Edge of Darkness and closes Three Amigos in the third season of Northen Exposure. With its mentions of revenge, of dancing in saloons and of the casual violence of the old west – “You can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman / Especially one stealin’ his horse” goes a line in the title song – Red Headed Stranger clearly has its origins in Nashville but counts folk, classicism and the jazz sound of a big band amongst its influences.
Less the sort of thing to get one line dancing, it ought to be considered as an album to stand alongside Frank Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours or Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water as a record of American life. It’s a magnificent record that continues to surprise and I love it more than most anything that I’ve heard. It moves me to laugh along with it, I’ve danced to it and I’d have it played at my funeral so long as my copy of it doesn’t wear out. Of this release, all I’d asked of it is that Willie Nelson found the time for at least one song from it in the setlist and I would have happily sat through anything else he chose to perform just for those few minutes.
And does he include even one song from Red Headed Stranger? Bollocks he does, choosing to perform a wide selection of his own songs and those made well-known by others. Hence, we have Always On My Mind, What A Wonderful World, Spanish Eyes and Moon River as well as City Of New Orleans, Ole Buttermilk Sky and South Of The Border but the frequent shots of the audience – of which there are far too many – suggest why we don’t hear quite enough of Nelson’s material. Clearly monied and in their finest dinner jackets and evening gowns, this is a crowd who would, if left to their own devices, just about figure out the back and forward ends of a horse but who are more likely to feast on champagne than on whiskey’n’beans. Obviously in no mood for Amazing Grace, Hands On The Wheel or Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground, they’re content to have paid for their tickets and to be entertained by an evening of standards. It’s a pity, though, that so well known are these songs and so ordinary the arrangements that it could almost be anyone up there. Willie Nelson need not have attended even his own enchanted evening.
Of course, Nelson’s career is one of such contradictions. Never as honoured as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson has mixed country with recording standards and if he’s not been rewarded with plaudits, he’s enjoyed success more than most. A liberal in a conservative world, he’s a country’n’western star who keeps his stash of marijuana nearby at all times and who easily flits between the rhinestone of Nashville and the denim of Austin, he occasionally makes the headlines and did so earlier this year by recording a post-Brokeback Mountain song titled Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond Of Each Other). It’s that willingness to please that marks out Willie Nelson and where a Kris Kristofferson or a Merle Haggard might have said, “Fuck ’em!” and let rip a set of lowdown country tracks, Nelson doesn’t, going with the flow rather than against the grain.
But for all that, it’s still an awful letdown. Understanding why a medicine might taste awful doesn’t make swallowing it any easier and nor does knowing why Nelson played this set make it any more entertaining. Safe, bloodless and so very ordinary, Some Enchanted Evening sees the worst of Willie Nelson on DVD. For now, I’ll be sticking with Red Headed Stranger.
Looking to have either been transferred over from a ropey old VHS tape or filmed through a thick layer of Vaseline, this fuzzy, soft DVD looks dreadful with the none-more-cheesy title screen – a soft-focus, video-era zoom in on a wine glass, candle and a rose with a ribbon tied around it – summing up everything that follows perfectly well. With a sound and picture quality, although that’s really the wrong word, that you won’t see outside of the most seldom-watched channels on Sky – Audi TV? Broadband TV? Is there any reason that these channels exist? – this looks and sounds awful. Nelson has a wonderful voice and his Amazing Grace is amongst the best recorded but this does him no justice whatsoever.
With the exception of track selection – I admit, that’s not really an extra – there are no extras on the release of his DVD.
I was looking forward to this a great deal but to say that I’m disappointed is something of an understatement. Frankly, Some Enchanted Evening couldn’t have been any more of a let down had Willie Nelson appeared without his trousers and performing a set of Whitney Houston songs…with Houston gasping stage left for her crack pipe. How many Willie Nelson completists there are out there is not something that I’ve ever wondered but it’s surely something we’ll learn by finding out how many copies of this will be sold. Anyone else is going to be feeling awfully letdown by this.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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