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Lone Star State of disgrace

Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson could not be more different. Holly was a pop star reared on country, a country boy who craved the big city. Nelson is a country legend influenced by pop, a man more comfortable wrestling in the dirt than dancing on marble. Holly projected the wholesome image of the loving son and family man, while Nelson has carefully nurtured and protected his outlaw image. Holly was a careful and deliberate songwriter, while Nelson is a craftsman whose songbooks are stained with whiskey. Holly's dead, while Nelson's just stoned.

But of all the native-born Texans who made music here and influenced the world outside, Holly and Nelson shared one thing: They were inherently simple men who sang of deceptively simple things--puppy love tinged with adult heartbreak, teen-age lust commingled with grown-up desire. Holly wrote the perfect pop songs, Nelson the perfect country songs, and together they form much of the Texas soundtrack, creating music that was big enough to encompass many influences but small enough to sound like it came from nowhere at all.

On the surface, they wrote easy moments--songs easily digested and understood, songs that hid nothing and revealed everything; there's no secrets contained in Holly's "Crying, Hoping, Waiting" or Nelson's "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," nothing profound except the directness of the words and arrangements.

It's so hard, then, to fathom how two new so-called "tribute" albums--Twisted Willie, from the Houston-based Justice Records label, and Decca-MCA's Not Fade Away--could get both men so wrong and treat their work with so little respect and compassion. Both sound as though their respective "all-star" lineups never heard of either man's work until they stepped into the studios. They're shallow, hollow, empty records that trample on one man's grave and kick another man while he's down.

Of the two, Injustice's Twisted Willie is the worst, reeking with the stench of a cheap prostitute: Nelson not only agreed to this project, he participated on it (playing with Super-suckers on "Bloody Mary Morning," sing-ing with Reverend Horton Heat on "Hello Walls"), no doubt hoping a crop of hip and alternative artists would resurrect a career that's been flying too close to the ground for some time. Instead, Willie watched and listened as the likes of Gas Huffer, Steel Pole Bath-tub, Presidents of the United States of Am-erica, Best Kissers in the World, L7, Sound-garden, and Jello Biafra slaughtered his music. If songs are indeed children created by their writers and then sent into the world to fend for themselves, then Willie has helped kill his kids.

What most of the artists on Twisted Willie seem to miss is the fact that Nelson's music transcends country--it's a far more complicated beast, infused with jazz and Tin Pan Alley pop--and is closely tied to the singer's nasal voice. Nelson is a songwriter whose work is almost dependent upon his voice singing those songs--the off-tempo phrasing, the whiny inflection, the weariness he brings to both the ballads and the two-steppin' rockers, a voice that creaks like an old wooden dance floor.

When Faron Young recorded "Hello Walls" and Patsy Cline sang "Crazy," they did so when Nelson was still a songwriter employed by a Nashville publishing house; Young and Cline made those songs theirs because they were not yet inextricably linked to Nelson, not bound to his delivery of his own words.

So-called tribute albums, by their very definition, celebrate the songwriter and not the singer; they use disparate artists to redefine one songwriter or singer's body of work, to lend their own voices and interpretations to music that's already left an indelible imprint upon our own private jukeboxes. That's why most tribute albums, whether they're paying homage to John Lennon or XTC or Kiss, never succeed past their intentions, noble or otherwise: They're filled with musicians who are trying to recreate memories, yelling over echoes, attempting to take credit for something they weren't good enough to think of themselves.

What makes Twisted Willie so doubly offensive is the lack of understanding these musicians have of Nelson's work. They don't see past the surface of the songs, don't realize that Nelson's finest moments are often the wide-open spaces between the notes and words. Most of the artists on Twisted Willie take pleasure in mutilating Nelson's songs, destroying them and rendering them all but unrecognizable--playing them loud just because they can. It almost seems as though there exists a certain contempt for the material in producer and Injustice Records owner Randall Jamail's choice of artists and in the presentation itself.

When Nelson sang "Time of the Preacher" on his Red-Headed Stranger, accompanied only by a sparse acoustic guitar, he was recounting a complex story using a deceptively simple arrangement; it was an introduction to a larger allegory about sin and salvation in the persona of a murdering preacher who seeks redemption and finds rejection, a set-up for Nelson's one true masterpiece. The version here, which also opens Twisted Willie, is a bad idea gone terribly wrong, out of place and out of its mind: Johnny Cash (a suitable choice for the song, a God-fearing man whose best work is touched by the Devil) is forced to compete with a ridiculous lite-metal guitar part from Soundgarden's Kim Thayil that misses the point. It's one thing to interpret a song, to infuse it with new life or reveal hidden truths or even subvert its meaning, but Thayil has done nothing more than throw shit on a Picasso.  

When Supersuckers (and how's that for truth in advertising?) bashes its way through "Bloody Mary Morning," when the Presidents of the United States turn "Devil in a Sleepin' Bag" into a hillbilly pogo, or when L7 runs roughshod over "Three Days," they drown out the subtlety inherent even in Nelson's weakest moments. This ain't no tribute; it's a novelty item at best and a parody at worst.

Nowhere is that more evident than on Reverend Horton Heat's "Hello Walls," for which Jim Heath decided to play it for ironic laughs and sing it through a smirk. He sounds like a truck driver in front of a karaoke machine after a few gin and tonics, so mismatched and out of his league with "guest vocalist" Willie Nelson. What was Willie thinking? Would he also get into a car with three wheels?

The once-again-reunited X does nothing but transform the lesser-known "Home Motel" into an X song as John Doe and Exene Cervenka look for a harmony in a trash can. Even Waylon Jennings, an outlaw who couldn't even get arrested these days, croaks out "I Never Cared for You" like he was telling you the truth.

Only ex-Breeder Kelley Deal's oddball take on "Angels Flying Too Close to the Ground" understands and embraces the possibilities: By moaning the song off-key, her voice surrounded by a faint harmonica and assorted studio effects, Deal turns the beautiful ballad into an otherworldly plaint. She's that angel, about to crash and burn forever. Then Kris Kristofferson starts to sing, and "Angel" goes all to hell.

Buddy Holly's is the first voice you hear on Not Fade Away, a ghost plucked from the heavens and placed in the recording studio with none other than the Hollies--who were allegedly named after Holly, though they were never even good enough to clean his glasses. In the tradition of Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole's "Unforgettable" and the Beatles' "Free as a Bird," here's yet another dead voice resurrected to sell a few records--this time to "recut" "Peggy Sue Got Married" for no apparent reason other than Graham Nash needed the work.

Compared with Twisted Willie, Not Fade Away is a triumph of subtlety and craftsmanship, a record with some heart and a modicum of soul (Buddy's old pal Waylon Jennings redeems his Twisted Willie turn with a classic-sounding "Learning the Game"). Most of the musicians here rarely bring anything new to the proceedings, but they also don't go out of their way to spit on a dead man's grave--except, of course, for "Peggy Sue Got Married," which somehow comes out sounding like the Beach Boys' "Kokomo" once the Hollies get through plundering the coffin.

There is a certain despicableness about the proceedings: A bulk of the musicians assembled here are MCA artists brought together by the label with no rhyme or reason, and they have little or no connection to Holly. Only Joe Ely, also a Lubbock native and a man who grew up in Holly's shadow, is a logical choice among the MCA roster artists, and he gives it his all on "Oh Boy!" Even then, he's sabotaged by the presence of Todd Snider (MCA signs that boy's checks, too), who actually comes off sounding like a pale imitation of Ely; it's like having John Belushi duet with Joe Cocker:What's the point?

If Twisted Willie is an example of musicians overanxious to destroy their models, Not Fade Away features a lineup of artists too afraid to break the mold; they're reverent to a fault and present nothing but faint shadows of the original songs. When the Crickets team up with Nanci Griffith to dust off "Well...All Right," they perform it as they did in the studio 40 years ago--swaying between country and rock, moving quickly but remaining in place. Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Wishing" is as pleasant as an afternoon yawn; The Mavericks' "True Love Ways" turns Holly into Roy Orbison; and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Maybe Baby" is rendered as lightweight top-of-the-pops country.

Los Lobos do manage to imbue "Midnight Shift" with a hidden threat Holly's sweet voice could never find; and Marty Stuart and Steve Earle resurrect "Crying, Hoping, Waiting" as a slide-blues that morphs into a barroom rave-up. But there's no life here, none of the joy--or even the honest sorrow--that permeated even Holly's worst songs, only the sound of cash exchanging hands. Rest in pieces, Buddy.  


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