Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s Willie Nelson

To Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, L7, and other top college rock stars, he’s more than a red-headed stranger. He’s a genuine influence—one worth celebrating on a new tribute album that proves it’s better to be interpreted than to fade away.

Randall Jamail, the founder of Houston’s Justice Records, jiggles and jumps, takes a phone call, props a running shoe on a mixing board in Seattle’s vaunted Bad Animals Studio. He wears dark gray shades and his haircut is half an inch long. He hangs up, bolts down the hall to refill his cup with the studio’s “heroin coffee,” as he terms it, then hurries back and plays frenetic air guitar beside his hip, explaining the song’s arrangement to a musician. The 39-year-old Jamail is the son of famed Houston trial attorney Joe Jamail, a longtime chum of Willie Nelson’s. The younger Jamail grew up around Willie’s gigs and Fourth of July picnics; after college he graduated from law school, planning to join his dad’s firm, but that’s a hard act to follow. He launched Justice Records as a jazz label in 1989 and had fifteen Top Ten hits in three years. But the jazz share of the record market is minute, so Jamail branched out, signing blues singers, then county and western artists, followed by punk rock acts and recording a concert by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and an oration by Pope John Paul II—part of the Vatican’s first official acknowledgment of the Holocaust. Jamail also landed two of Willie’s albums, Moonlight Becomes You and Just One Love, when changing country and western fashion left the legendary Texas singer without a recording contract on a major label. Now it’s July 1995, and Jamail is engrossed in his latest long jump: Turn the nation’s top punk and grunge rockers loose with Willie Nelson material. “Outlaw to outlaw,” he frames the concept. The new record, scheduled for release later this month, is called Twisted Willie.

The lobby walls at Bad Animals Studio are lined with framed platinum records of Nirvana and Pearl Jam—Texas possesses no studio remotely like it—and one spin across the Seattle radio dial offers more evidence that this lush, fashionable, traffic-crushed city has become one of the country’s true music capitals. Yet grunge rock, the nihilistic evolution of punk and heavy metal that spawned the Seattle scene, began as the antithesis of commerciality. Nirvana and other groups put out albums on independent labels that, with no help from MTV videos or radio push of singles, spread word-of-mouth, took a large, youthful audience by storm, and made the major labels’ producers come to them, hats and contracts in hand. What’s that go to do with Willie Nelson? Precedent. “It’s like twenty years ago,” Jamail says, “when Willie was all but run out of Nashville. He came back to Texas, set up in Austin, and said, ‘I’m going to do what I do. And if the big record companies don’t get it, screw ’em.’ That’s exactly how it happened in Seattle.”

Willie’s career has looped, circled, and doubled back over so many times it’s akin to a trick roper’s routine. When the Nashville-based country music industry shunned him as a performer in the early seventies, he built his audience with tireless road appearances that filled rowdy halls with bankers, hippies, bikers. Their record-buying power changed the industry—suddenly it was all right for traditional country to rock and roll—and made Willie a superstar, along with his rough-edged Texas soul mate Waylon Jennings. But since then, the style they inspired has been burnished and slickened into the “hot country” sound that today drives the Nashville industry—hokum pop with a soft-rock dance beat. Willie and Waylon are old guys, they don’t prance around in tight jeans, and in the cities, country and western deejays just won’t play their records. And their 1985 tour and record with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen did little to bolster their standing in the C&W market. To Nashville executives, they seem to be mere nostalgists.

But not to a younger generation of alternative-rock musicians. Jamail’s proposal of a radical interpretation of Willie’s songwriting, with contributions from each of the Highwaymen, has set off a stampede of big-name rock performers to get on board: members of Seattle grunge heavyweights Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Screaming Trees. Lollapalooza tour headliners L7, an all-woman band from Los Angeles; the seminal Hollywood punk rockers X. Moving around the Bad Animals control room is Danny Bland, a dark-haired man in jeans, lizard-skin boots, and a cap that says “Willie.” Bland, who helped Jamail line up much of the rock talent, is the manager of the Supersuckers, a red-hot band that moved to Seattle from Arizona a few years ago. Bland grew up in Phoenix, listening to his dad’s outlaw country records. “For four years my band’s been opening their shows with ‘Whiskey River,’ he says. “I told Randall, ‘Are you aware how much these musicians idolize Willie? I bet a lot of them would love to cover him on a record.’ So Randall got me to start asking around. I’d say, ‘The guy has produced Willie and the pope. That good enough?’” Bland chuckles. “This is going to be the first record I’ve ever been involved in that my dad will listen to.”

Jamail hopes to tap into the vast audience represented by those platinum records on the studio wall in downtown Seattle, but he wants Willie’s fans to buy the album too. For this session Jamail has recruited a Seattle all-star band to play behind Johnny Cash. “I said, ‘Johnny, I’m doing something kind of perverse with Willie Nelson songs.’ He said, ‘Great, I’m in.’” But Cash won’t show up for several more hours, and he doesn’t know exactly what he’s in for. Jamail, who is a skilled guitarist, has been sitting in with the players, trying to impart his vision of a track from Willie’s 1975 concept album, The Red Headed Stranger. The ominous lyrics of Willie’s “The Time of the Preacher” seem tailor-made for the sonorous drawl of the Man in Black: “It was the time of the preacher/In the year of ‘01/Now the lesson is over/And the killing’s begun.” Over the years Cash has accidentally set

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