Last week, Willie Nelson added yet another honor to his already boundless résumé: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee. Willie made the short list for this year’s ceremony for the first time, along with others who’ve made outsized contributions to the genre—Iron Maiden, Joy Division (and its spin-off band, New Order), Rage Against the Machine, and Soundgarden among them.
Willie’s nomination isn’t without controversy, though. Only a fool would argue against his excellence as a performer, songwriter, and icon—but does he belong in this particular Hall of Fame? Country fans and rock purists alike have struggled with the question. So have Texas Monthly’s own Andy Langer and Dan Solomon, who find themselves on opposite sides of the issue. As we count down the weeks until the induction announcement in May, each writer articulates his position on the question: Is Willie Nelson rock and roll?
Dan Solomon: I love Willie Nelson. I love his biggest and most well-known hits, I love his iconic albums, I love random, semi-obscure nineties and aughts releases that rarely get acknowledged. But as great as all of that stuff is, it’s not exactly rock music. So I was a little surprised to see Willie on the nominations list for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I know you’ve been advocating for Willie’s inclusion for a while as a voting member. What’s behind the push to get a country star who’s only occasionally shown an interest in crossing over to rock into this particular Hall of Fame?
Andy Langer: At least initially, rather than focus on the “rock” part of the name, I think we need to start with the two primary definitions the Hall of Fame has operated under—the official criteria and, um, the wisdom of Ice Cube. We don’t know much about what happens behind the scenes with the secretive nomination committee, but we know this is the criteria they work under: “We shall consider factors such as an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique. But musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.” Less officially, but more instructive, there’s Ice Cube’s 2016 induction speech: “Rock and roll is not an instrument; rock and roll is not even a style of music. Rock and roll is a spirit. . . . It’s been going since the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, R&B, rock and roll, heavy metal, punk rock, and yes, hip-hop. And what connects us all is that spirit. . . . Rock and roll is not conforming to the people who came before you, but creating your own path in music and in life.” Yeah, Cube didn’t mention country. Oversight? Bias? I’m not sure. But Willie more than meets both sets of benchmarks— “musical excellence” and “spirit”— so I think we’re squarely in what-took-so-long territory.
DS: Far be it from me to disagree with Ice Cube, but the Hall of Fame has a ton of glaring absences that hit both “musical excellence” and “spirit” without requiring anyone to recontextualize a decades-long country music career as rock and roll. I’m in favor of an expansive definition of rock music, but even stretching it as far as it can go doesn’t really leave room for the red-headed stranger. Which is fine—Willie deserves an entire floor of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but it’s hard for me to make sense of him as a first-ballot entrant to this one. If acts as pivotal as Devo and Joy Division, or as swaggering as Iron Maiden and Motörhead, or as transformative as Outkast and Rage Against the Machine don’t make the cut, why does Willie? Has Willie Nelson been relevant to rock music? Sure—but how does an entity calling itself the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have a spot for Willie before it has one for Lemmy?
AL: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival hasn’t been just jazz in a couple of decades. Same with Newport Folk. Institutions that matter evolve—and whether this is one of those that matters is another debate for another day. Until last year, when Dolly Parton declined her nomination and then reversed course, the argument against Willie was, “There’s a reason why the Country Music Hall of Fame exists.” But even before Dolly, there were already a little over a dozen artists with dual membership in the country and rock Hall of Fames, among them Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bill Monroe. And it’s true that of those five, only Cash was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the regular way. The rest were inducted as “Early Influences.” That point is yours. But I think once you induct Johnny and Dolly, you now have a precedent you can apply to similar country icons at that level. And I have to believe those three really stand above the others of their generation. And in terms of a direct rock connection, the outlaw era and its role as a bridge between rock and country is what really ties it all together.
DS: Maybe this is a controversial opinion here in Texas, but Johnny Cash—at least to my ears—was a million times more rock and roll than Willie Nelson has chosen to be in his career. Cash’s career renaissance was sparked in part because he covered a Nine Inch Nails song and worked with Slayer and Run-DMC’s producer, and did songs backed by the Heartbreakers and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Dolly’s inclusion, meanwhile, was so controversial that even she didn’t think she deserved it—it’s just that she was too polite, as a well-mannered Southerner, to turn down such an honor.
AL: Maybe it’s blasphemy, but I always thought Dolly was wrong to decline. This is a body that enshrined Whitney Houston, which I took to possibly mean three things: rock and roll is a wider tent than most of us imagined, her induction was an unfortunate part of our collective grieving process, and the “Rock” part of the hall’s name is simply too restrictive. Sure, Cash was on Sun Records and his early releases were rockabilly. There’s no question that he belongs. But now apply the same standard to Whitney or Donna Summer and you come up short, especially in the spirit department.
DS: I reckon that debating individual artists could keep us here all day, so I’ll just say that if Willie had recorded anything that went as hard as “She Works Hard for the Money,” I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
Look, I get what you (and Ice Cube!) are saying about rock and roll as a defiant spirit, and certainly Willie’s outlaw era had that in spades. But he had a lot of contemporaries within that movement (even Waylon) who just seemed more interested in exploring rock music as a sound and a style than he did, while he chose to make beautiful country music. That’s his sound and his style, and it feels like part of the outlaw movement was about saying that country had room for defiance and attitude, too. Does claiming that spirit for rock and roll, even though Willie just wasn’t that interested in actually making rock music (he certainly could have) just further the walling off of country music that he spent the seventies pushing back against?
AL: If Willie is inducted, make no mistake, Waylon and Kris Kristofferson are next. As it should be. If Cat Stevens is in, Kris should be. And while you’re right about Willie showing very little interest in actual rock music, his guitar playing, his leadership of a highly improvisational live band, and his extracurricular defiance help edge him toward the rock side of the spectrum nonetheless. I don’t think it necessarily falls upon the Rock Hall or Willie to recontextualize the outlaw movement and its early—and probably disparate—motivations. Instead, I think this is definitely about debating the merits of individual artists. That’s why the system is built on ballots, not instant coronations. Does Pearl Jam fit better than the Smashing Pumpkins? And how do you debate the New York Dolls versus Chic? It’s what makes the whole exercise simultaneously fun and frustrating.
DS: I guess that brings me back to the whole reason seeing Willie on the list strikes an off note to me: there are just so many artists who seem like indisputable Rock and Roll Hall of Famers who somehow aren’t in there, while Willie is more of a “squint and you can see it” case. I won’t be mad if he’s inducted—generally speaking, I’m in favor of taking any opportunity we get to celebrate the greatness of Willie Nelson—but I will be a little confused, I guess? If Willie gets in on this ballot, then he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Devo, Soundgarden, or the Wu-Tang Clan! That just seems weird to me. I will concede that rock and roll is, ultimately, a vibe—none of those three artists sound like one another—but whatever that ineffable rock and roll spirit is, it just seems like there are a lot of artists who have it who are still waiting in the wings of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whereas Willie’s legend was built somewhere a little bit outside of it. Is there room for him in the Hall? Sure—I’d just like to see Motörhead and Outkast get in first.
AL: All of the acts you mentioned are eventually getting in. But I also understand where you’re coming from. Last week, I saw Joe Scarborough argue for Jerry Jeff Walker. I like Jerry Jeff, but I was shaking my head because I don’t think he’s even a “squint and see it” case. But I’m glad we’re debating Willie, or even Jerry Jeff, instead of Seal or Counting Crows (or the Black Crowes). The train has entirely left the station to the point where one of your examples—Wu-Tang—would have been nearly impossible to imagine ten years ago. And I’m glad we’re beyond the point where people can argue against hip-hop based on an outdated (and potentially dog-whistle-ish) belief that professional musicianship requires both singing and playing instruments. So now the whole exercise is a Rorschach test. And thanks to social media, Willie is a Rorschach test too: just look at all the commenters calling him a pinko commie whenever he advocates for candidates or basic equality. And as indelicate as this part of the conversation may be, I don’t want to keep Willie waiting in the wings, because he’ll be ninety in April. We give a lot of lip service to “See the icons while you can” and “Jeez, it would have been nice if this happened while he was alive,” and this is that opportunity. Sure, Willie knows people love him and his legacy, but if he’s eventually getting in—and make no mistake, he is—why not now, while he can enjoy it?
DS: I certainly can’t argue with any of that (although, alas, I like Counting Crows). So you’re a voting member of the Hall, right? Is it safe to say that Willie has at least one ballot in his favor, then?
AL: I am, and while I don’t think he’ll need my vote, he’s got it. And I’ll vote for Rage Against the Machine and the White Stripes too, because if Willie gets in, you know “On the Road Again” will be the ceremony’s all-hands-on-deck finale. I want to see Jack White and Rage’s Tom Morello step forward and duel with Willie, mirroring his dissonant soloing with unique takes of their own. It’ll be a showstopper and maybe even an argument ender. One can dream, right?