New Music for Old People: Fifty Years of the Balladry and Bad-Ass Brilliance of Tracy Nelson

By , Columnist

I first heard/saw Tracy on a Prestige album — a label normally reserved for jazzers, hence my immediate interest in a gal who looked to be in her early 20s but sang like a woman from the early 1920s. Turns out she was a bluesy folker and her voice made an immediate dent in the keeper part of my brain and ear tunnels. That was in 1965.

So this is Tracy’s 50th year in our presence — and what an amazing journey it has been. First there was the group Mother Earth, which gathered around Tracy and gave her the comfort to be herself. They started in San Francisco where they began on Bills of Graham importance, but eventually the country clarion beckoned Ms. Nelson to Nashville and there she arrived, before many who later followed her path.

The city welcomed her and she sang equal parts country and blues. It was there that I saw her live for the first time and made my equal pacts with God AND the Devil to worship and wobble with her for the rest of my life. When I moved to Nashville MANY years later, she was still there, albeit out in the woods where someone always had to drive me. I offered my playing services to her and I played organ for her free of charge quite a few times just to share her stage in a comparatively minimal way. I even got to organ up on some album tracks with her which was a great honor.

So it is no accident that Tracy is an early choice to be featured here singularly in the column. My only constraint was to mostly feature the ballad side of her, which I love the best. And after all, it’s MY column — but this week if one has any ears and soul at all, it is Totally Tracy! If I go first, she has promised to sing "Down So Low" at my final gathering. Here’s hoping I arrive Up So High.

Feb062015 by Lisa67 on Grooveshark

1. "Down So Low" (studio version) — Mother Earth (3:44)

This is from their debut album Living With the Animals. This was the first song Tracy ever wrote and it's one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.

2. "Tonight the Sky Is About to Cry" — Mother Earth (3:50)

There were four Mother Earth albums, but they were Tracy Nelson albums with varying personnel and levels of confidence. This is from 1971’s Bring Me Home album which was a period where Tracy and her ilk embraced the compositions of East Coast songwriter Eric Kaz and this is one of those — one of my faves. Kaz is best known for co-writing "Love Has No Pride" which was also cut by Tracy.

3. "Send Me to the Electric Chair" — Tracy Nelson (2:59)

This oft-covered Bessie Smith song actually has a chilling lyric which is usually masked by great singing. Here ya get chills on both ends. Tracy pays great tribute to Bessie, who incidentally recorded many 78 rpm disks that were in my father's collection, of all places.

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4. "I Want to Lay Down Beside You" — Tracy Nelson (4:16)

Just to confuse us, this is from Tracy’s solo album entitled Mother Earth from 1972 and includes many members of that band performing behind her. This was written by the late bassist Tim Drummond and I believe was covered by the late bassist/singer Rick Danko as well. I think the sound of Tracy’s voice here is as good as it gets tone-wise, and having the songwriter on bass keeps the groove in place.

5. "Mother Earth" — Mother Earth feat. Mike Bloomfield (4:06)

From their 1967 debut album Living With the Animals, Tracy covers Memphis Slim's classic blues anthem. Mike Bloomfield lovingly plays his wonderful bluesy fills around her soulful vocal lines.

6. "You Will Find Me There" — Tracy Nelson (3:33)

A superb combination of songwriters to select are Will Jennings and Matraca Berg. I’ve always loved the way Tracy made this her own.

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Tracy flanked by Artie and Happy Traum

7. "I Could Have Been Your Best Friend" — Tracy Nelson (2:24)

Here’s a slow, steamy rocker written by Ms. Nelson and her longtime keyboardist Andy McMahon. I assume that’s him ticklin’ the ivories (actually ‘the plastics’ as it sounds like an electric Wurlitzer piano).

8. "Tennessee Blues" — Tracy Nelson (3:32)

This is onne of her top five vocals and it's an incredible composition by the late Bobby Charles. This is exquisite listening.

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9. "Stranger in My Own Home Town" — Tracy Nelson (2:41)

From about two albums back currently, this is a Percy Mayfield favorite of mine done lovingly by Tracy with some great B3 playing by Jimmy Pugh.

10. "Victim of the Blues" — Tracy Nelson (2:44)

This is the title song of the album the previous track is on. A tip of the hat to authoress Ma Rainey, who, along with Bessie Smith, were Tracy’s earliest influences.

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11. "Words Unspoken" — Tracy Nelson (3:45)

This is my second favorite composition written by Tracy with, of course, "Down So Low" being number one. This gives it a run for its money with some great vocalizing and spot-on lyric writing.

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12. "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" — Tracy Nelson (2:50)

From her full-on aptly titled Country album, Tracy caresses this classic Hank Williams standard with that amazing country voice of hers.

13. "I'll Be Long Gone" — Tracy Nelson (2:16)

I don’t think Boz Scaggs minded a womanly version of his song, especially by Tracy.

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Tracy with Rocky, one of the stars of the movie "Best in Show"

14. "Without Love" — Tracy Nelson & John Cowan (2:46)

Two great singers who are both dear friends of mine tackle a beacon of my teenage years from 1956 originally recorded by the late, great Clyde McPhatter who was the original lead singer of The Drifters. Tracy and John tip their vocal hats to Clyde on this version.

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15. "The Memory of Your Smile" — Tracy Nelson (2:50)

I believe this was originally a Stanley Brothers country track. Tracy does it true to its origin and her voice gives this another kinda richness missing from the original version.

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16. "Down So Low" (live) — Tracy Nelson (5:31)

This is from 2003’s Live From Cell Block D album, recorded at the West Tennessee Detention Center. It’s about 35 years between the original first track here and this one. It’s great to hear the various differences, i.e. tempo, different vocal tonality, and a virtual lifetime of singing her maiden songwriting effort. This is a great way to close this loving tribute to a dear friend and a one-of-a-kind artiste. Thank you, Tracy, for a half century of truly memorable music. I am sure there are years more left to enjoy for all of us.

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Legendary musician (Bob Dylan, Blues Project, Super Session, Blood Sweat & Tears), producer (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Nils Lofgren, The Tubes) and author (Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards), Al is happy to join the staff of The Morton Report in an effort to help his fellow listeners stay in tune!

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