1975 – "Hands on the Wheel," Willie Nelson

My choice for 1975 is “Hands on the Wheel” from Willie Nelson’s landmark Red Headed Stranger album, which was voted #1 in CMT’s 2006 list of the 40 greatest country albums; Rolling Stone ranked it at #184 of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The song also appeared on the soundtrack to the Robert Redford-Jane Fonda vehicle The Electric Horseman (1979) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Horseman , along with several other Nelson cuts (including a great version of the Allmans’ “Midnight Rider”) from Willie’s “outlaw” period. Although I soon discovered my parents’ vinyl copy of Red-Headed Stranger, it was the soundtrack record that first led me to this song.

I don’t know exactly why I had the EH soundtrack in my record collection when I was so young – seems like an odd choice for a 10 year-old, especially considering my Dad’s antipathy toward Ms. Fonda: he still never fails to refer to her as “Hanoi Jane.” It’s most likely because it included some songs I had learned or was learning in guitar lessons, like “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” (I started taking guitar lessons in ’79 – hey, so that makes this year the 30-year anniversary of my becoming a guitar player; clearly, I really should be a lot better than I am.) One of the first songs I ever learned to play was the Willie and Waylon co-write “Good-Hearted Woman”; “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” was soon to follow. These were my guitar teacher’s choices (Gary Breedlove – you can still find his 45 “Bicentennial Song” for sale via record collectors from time to time), but Willie and Waylon were certainly ubiquitous in the late 70’s. It was the Urban Cowboy era, when country culture, especially of the “outlaw” variety, was permeating the broader popular culture – not as an authentic alternative to the disco lifestyle, but as the more uptight, straight, middle-and-working-class white version of the disco sub-culture. It’s no coincidence that John Travolta starred in both Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy: he was the white culture’s chosen cipher: sexy but non-threatening, chameleon-like in his ability to believably portray both redneck and gumba. But I digress ….

My aunt Liz is a Willie Nelson fan, of course, and owned RHS, the Honeysuckle Rose soundtrack – all on 8-track – but yet again it was my friend Bryan who had “the goods” – a vinyl copy of 1976’s Wanted: The Outlaws! collaboration between Wille, Waylon, Jessi Colter (Ms. Waylon) and Tompall Glaser. It holds the distinction of being the first country album to sell one million copies, but it was more of a cash-in by RCA on the rising popularity of its renegade country stars – whose initial forays into the stripped-down arrangements, poetic songwriting, and a production focus that owed more to rock and R&B than the sliker country-politan sound that dominated Nashville in the late 60’s through early 70’s that linked Nelson, Jennings, and Glaser’s records since 1972 or so.  (Interesting side note: the acknowledged master of the countrypolitan sound was Billy Sherril, who first won acclaim as a songwriter and knob-twister at Rick Hall’s Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.) Of course, I had no knowledge of the cultural/commercial significance of what we were listening to, sitting on the floor of my best friend’s bedroom. I just thought it was cool, mainly because of the pictures on the album sleeve.

Some place the beginning of the “outlaw” movement with Nelson’s first country “concept” album – Yesterday’s Wine (1971) – but 1970-72 saw multiple changes, particularly in the amount of artistic control that mainstream country performers, including Nelson and Jennings, were given by their labels (RCA Victor, RCA and later Atlantic for Nelson). The public face of outlaw country was – and still is – pretty much typified by Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie persona: the long hair/braids, cowboy hat, unshaven face. But it was more than just a look; it was about song choices (personal, quirky), production values (simple, clean, valuing spontaneity over slickness), and, yes, attitude. With all due respect to Waylon’s classic Honky Tonk Heroes, no album better typifies what was genuinely great about the Outlaw era than Red Headed Stranger.

Set in “the time of the Preacher,” RHS tells a somewhat disjointed story that plays on various country and western tropes: the bitter “stranger” (who may or may not also be the Preacher); various incarnations of “the lady” — one a cheating spouse, one a dead/dying lover/wife, one a potential horse thief, the last a wife/mother figure (who appears in “Hands”); and, of course, the Preacher himself. As a result, RHS has been referred to as a concept album, and the songs, mainly from “classic” country songwriters (Eddy Arnold, Hank Cochran, Fred Rose), are inter-woven with Nelson-written interludes that convay the loose story of the stranger and the lady/ladies: “I Couldn’t Believe it Was True” could record the stranger’s discovery of the first lady’s infidelity; “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” seems to be the stranger mourning for a dead lover (probably not the unfaithful wife … unless he killed her, of course); “Can I Sleep in Your Arms Tonight” has the stranger falling in love again.

“Hands on the Wheel” is the album’s denouement, a third and first-person account of a happy, if slightly cynical, character who has found some kind of peace and security.

At a time when the world seems to be spinning hopelessly out of control,

There’s deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners,

That seem to have no place to go.

Well, it’s the same old song, it’s right and it’s wrong,

And living is just something that I do.

And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes,

And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars.

And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke.

Now my hand’s on the wheel of something that’s real,

And I feel like I’m going home.

In the shade of an oak down by the river,

Sit an old man and a boy,

Setting sail, spinning tales and fishing for whales,

With a lady they both enjoy.

Well, it’s the same damn tune, it’s the man in the moon.

It’s the way that I feel about you.

And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes,

And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars.

And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke.

Now my hand’s on the wheel of something that’s real,

And I feel like I’m going home.

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About russellwriter

Rob Russell is a dad, husband, writer, musician, educator, comic book reader, bad solderer, pop culture junky, trivia buff and student of everything cool and uncool. His favorite records are Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and, currently, The Best of Bobbie Gentry: The Capitol Years. His favorite comic books are Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. His favorite literary novels are Gabrial Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. His favorite genre novels are John Scalzi's Red Shirts, M.R. Carrey's The Girl with All the Gifts, and Dan Simmons' Drood. His favorite movie is Goodfellas. His favorite hobby, besides everything, is writing about himself and his favorite things in the third person.

Posted on January 12, 2010, in Great Rockers, Rock and Roll and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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