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VISIONS OF COUNTRY: Willie, Alison, and the Devil makes three

by Ryan Snyder

Willie, Alison, and the Devil makes three

Maybe Tim McGraw was onto something when he proposed the idea to GAC TV last year that now there really is a country music for everyone. The proliferation of chart-topping rap wranglers like Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line, or Kacey Musgraves’ eagerness to challenge country’s most inveterate social mores, seem to reinforce it. Even Avicii’s barnstorming of country radio with a once inconceivable EDM fusion that may as well be called “farmhouse” suggests that the distinctions between pop and popcountry have dissipated entirely. Yet, as country completely un-circles its wagons, there’s evidence in Willie Nelson’s joint tour with Alison Krauss & Union Station that this attrition has been a long time coming.

Between the filigreed impeccability of Alison Krauss & Union Station and the ragged affability of Willie Nelson, there may not exist a wider sonic gulf between two bands existing within the same idiom and on tour together. The AstroTurf sterility of the White Oak Amphitheatre, home to their Saturday night performance in Greensboro, has its way of conscripting the charismatic and the milquetoast toward the same neutral median, but its sway on Saturday was mostly void.

No matter the environment, Krauss and Union Station are like an unwavering constant. They’re to pop country and mainstream bluegrass what FourPlay is to jazz and R&B: virtuosic and accessible, but often tensionless to the point of tedium. Daft Punk drafted Nathan East to lend clean, but impossibly skilled bass lines to Random Access Memories, and likewise, Avicii hired Union Station guitarist Dan Tyminski to bless “Hey Brother” with his signature high and lonesome. Alison Krauss remarked that she heard that song in an Abercrombie & Fitch. And so it goes.

Being the de facto opener to a national treasure like Willie Nelson, despite carrying co-headliner status on paper, meant their performance was paint-by-numbers, even if there were the equivalent of five masters holding the brushes. Their set was 75 minutes of unerring grace, one stretch of loveliness indistinguishable from the next, and mostly at the pace and volume of rustling leaves. It’s okay to call it boring, because it often was, much in the way a night at the county symphony tends to be. Only here, the bleary-eyed patron deep into their third tall can of Budweiser was represented to a tad greater degree.

Only when the band vacated the stage nearly 45 minutes in to leave dobro player Jerry Douglas (a player of such renowned that the band of individual virtuosos is billed as “featuring Jerry Douglas”) to his solo could a pulse be felt. Offered the titles of the compositions he was to play beforehand, if only because their receivers mostly lacked the capacity to recognize them as Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and Chick Corea’s “Spain”.

When he untethered from Union Station, Douglas quickly showed himself to be an unmatched master of his instrument, giving a garrulous, but profoundly eloquent reading of the former, yet finding another gear in an unmistakable transition into the latter.

Nelson, on the other hand, was not so forthcoming in his methodology. The 81-year-old legend seemed just as spry as ever, his voice rangy and adaptive in covering gospel, the blues and soul “” though maybe it’s his voice that has come to be a standard for them all to a degree. Though in his twilight, his defining sound is that of the handheld wreck he calls Trigger, the most famous Martin N-20 ever built. The book on it is well established by now: Decades of distinct usage have slowly rendered a body that looks like Swiss cheese and a tone akin to a tuneful thud, but it’s a horse that Nelson has sworn to ride until neither can ride anymore.

Though Nelson is categorically the most important living country musician, it doesn’t require trained ears to realize that what he’s playing live in 2014 is almost entirely dissimilar to the country music of Red Headed Stranger or Stardust. Nelson’s evolution just happened so slowly, and was so affixed to the glacial deterioration of his guitar, that it was unnoticeable to all but those at his shows “” the prevailing stereotype there being “too drunk to care.”

Yet, with a re-emergence in interest of American Primitivism and prepared guitar, there’s a case that when mentioning people like John Fahey or Bradford Reed, Nelson has a place among them as well. Dissonance, split melodies and general fickleness of a guitar that might not meet some luthiers’ standards of what constitutes a guitar reigned. As timeless as some of his melodies are, he was prone to avoid them with regularity, staying ahead of, or sometimes behind the steady gallop of a beat produced by his drummer’s two-piece kit.

He shares his expansive songbook with the likes of Hank Williams, Tom T. Hall, Hoagy Carmichael, Waylon Jennings, Brenda Lee and Ed Bruce, but ownership of those songs in the “definitive” sense have become just as hazy with time. The “Funny How Time Slips Away” that he offered was far removed from the Billy Walker recording, and even further from its author’s original, but the fickleness of his guitar’s tone gave it a brand new tension that it shared with its immediate successor, “Crazy”, which itself shared no similarities with Patsy Cline’s version.

Nelson didn’t try to hide his guitar’s faults, either. Aside from throwing the occasional, well-executed solo to his sister Bobbie on piano, or his longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael, Trigger was the dominant sound in the mix.

“Night Life” was one of the few songs that he laid a full claim to, and with a sound that could have been jumping right off a phonograph, it was also one of the evening’s most memorable. For the encore, however, the evening reverted to a brief spate of normalcy. Jerry Douglas and singer/bassist Lucia Turino of openers Devil Makes Three joined Nelson for a whirlwind closing set of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and ” I Saw the Light”. It was definitively country by most standards, maybe for some the first time all evening. !

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