A look back: Willie Nelson’s ‘Spirit’ 15 years later

Willie Nelson 'Spirit' Cover Art

So what if I told you that musical legend Willie Nelson released arguably his best album in 1996 to little fanfare or critical acclaim?  And what if I told you that if this hidden gem were to be classified as a “country” album that it would be the very best release under that genre in the last 20 years?  You would probably think, like that character in Willie’s classic song, that I’m crazy right?  Well I may be crazy but this is exactly my opinion of Nelson’s masterpiece Spirit.

For those that have fallen under the spell of Spirit I bet I’m getting some rather rambunctious “amens” and “that’s rights.”  Well I’m glad you’re with me, but this retrospective is for the many who don’t know about what I call “Willie’s hidden masterpiece.”  I’m going to try and shed a little light on an album that I know for a fact literally has the power to heal a man because it did just that for someone I know. Seriously, a friend of mine was at a life crossroads and downright soul ill when he locked himself up in a room with this record and some cough syrup and came out on the other side looking and feeling like Andy Dufresne fresh out of Shawshank.

There always seems to be a divide between the public persona of a celebrity and their true private selves.  If anyone seems to break that mold it’s Willie Nelson.  What you see is seemingly what you get and everybody from Snoop Dogg to George W. Bush loves the man.  Willie’s heart always appears to be right there on his sleeve but when you first hear Spirit you begin to conceptualize a whole different man than Billy Joe Shaver’s classic outlaw version found in Willy the Wondering Gypsy and Me.

Willie Nelson - A Dream Come True - Original oil pastel drawing
^ A drawing by my brother titled “A Dream Come True” after the Spirit song

What you first realize, if you hadn’t noticed before, is that Willie Nelson is an incredibly stylized and gifted guitar player.  The opening track “Matador” is a Spanish flavored instrumental that is beautifully crafted and performed.  As with all great albums the opener sets a tone and with “Matador” that timbre is one of solitude and reflection.  The listener is presented to the only players he will hear on the album; Willie, Jody Payne on guitar, Willie’s sister Bobbie on Piano and fiddle accents from legendary player Johnny Gimble.

In a way the character from this cycle of songs could very well be the crimson haired preacher from Willie’s most well known work Red Headed Stranger years later; a statement from one who is reflective about the life they have lived and loved.  It is a cycle of songs from the wise man on the mountain, an outwards searcher no more but an inner reflective soul.  “Matador” invites you to a seat at the mount but it also lets you know you are at the feet of a master.

Now his story begins as it should, it begins with the love of a woman or better said the bittersweet memory of the love of a woman.  Three songs in this vein, “She is Gone,” “Your Memory Won’t Die in My Grave” and “I’m Not Trying To Forget You Anymore” follow.

“Oh what a taste of human love.  But now she’s gone and it don’t matter anymore.”

Willie’s guitar and the piano dance back and forth saying more within the breaks than the verses.  A sound is being formulated that becomes the means by which we are given a glimpse at the spirit behind the man we know as Willie Nelson.

“There’s an old hollow tree where we carved our initials and I said, ‘I love you’ and you said you loved me.”

The last of these three songs is a beautiful display of the acceptance of a love lost.

“So I’m not trying to forget you anymore.  I’ve got back into remembering all the love we’ve had before.  And the best day of my life is still when you walked through my door and I’m not trying to forget you anymore.”

There is a lifetime of experience behind that lyric.  It’s a sentiment that could seem unwarranted or even shallow out of context but one that goes way deep within the rhythm of this album.  We are now brought to the doorstep of the stand out song from this record and easily one of Willie’s ten best, “Too Sick To Pray.”

In the clip seen here Willie is performing with the aforementioned Shaver and Kris Kristofferson among others during an episdoe of Austin City Limits and he introduces “Too Sick To Pray” as his loophole song with a laugh.  This intro is the public persona that immediately and miraculously, in only the way music can, transforms to the spiritual:

“I’ve been too sick to pray, Lord
That’s why we ain’t talked in a while
It’s been some of them days, Lord
I thought I was on my last mile

But I’m feelin’ okay, Lord
And I’m glad that I called You today
Never needed You more
I woulda called You before
But I’ve been to sick to pray

Remember the family, Lord?
I know they will remember You
And all of their prayers, Lord
They talk to You just like I do

Well, I reckon that’s all, Lord
That’s all I can think of to say
And thank You, my friend
We’ll be talkin’ again
If I’m not too sick to pray”

It was Willie who wrote the lyric, “sad songs and waltzes ain’t selling this year.”  This certainly applies to Spirit.  Willie will occasionally break the charts as a duo alongside some new hot country artist these days but when he was recording Spirit he had to know that songs like “Too Sick To Pray” would never see radio air time.  I guess knowing that fact and still recording the record is sort of what they call artistic freedom and Mr. Nelson is certainly deserving of that.

Coming off a heavy load we are given another instrumental “Mariachi” that lifts us from the floor and prepares us for the enlightenment that arrives in subtle yet heavy doses during the second portion of this record.

Four songs now lay upon each other and propel Spirit to a place beyond what is thought possible within the workings of what has come before.  “I’m Waiting Forever,” “We Don’t Run,” “I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes” and “It’s a Dream Come True.”

We Don’t Run (Live – Berlin June 17th, 2010):

Now we are taken from the Earth bound type of love that is distilled and are lifted to a higher calling, songs that could be to a lover, or the greater throngs of humanity, or even a powerful spirit greater than this, a greater vision of love like the one that is found in one of Willie’s lilting classically strung guitar runs.

“It’s the music of the stars, it fulfills all my desires.  It’s a dream come true.”

Now that wise man on the mountain has shared his spirit with us.  The listener has become tuned in to and lifted up by his beautiful vision.

But what of that man who has made it to the mountain top?  What’s he to do with his days other than share his spirit with the occasional searcher brave enough to have made their way to his peak.  Well, he looks up higher of course. He talks with the Lord, he lets Him know He’s on his mind:

“I thought about trees and how much I’d like to climb one
I thought about friends and how rare it is to find one
I thought about You, the most gentle, sweet and kind one.
I thought about You Lord, I thought about You.”

Two more instrumentals, a gorgeous “Spirit of E9” and a brief interlude of the opener “Matador” and as listeners we are left in the wake of Willie Nelson’s spirit both figuratively and literally.

Spirit is a masterstroke, a work of art that could only come late in a legendary career like Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind or Willie’s public persona outlaw partner Waylon Jennings’ Right For the Time.  As surely as the sound of this record is timeless, time will bear out that this under-the-radar 1996 release is one of the very best in the genre of country music.