Willie Nelson, Master Cover Artist

Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.

Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.

Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.

It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.

Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.

Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.

Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.

The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.

Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.

He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.

This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.


Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.


I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.


Jeffrey Tucker: The Day That O Sacrum is Published

This article originally ran on the New Liturgical Movement on February 14, 2008, and concerns the publication of my motet O Sacrum Convivium by CanticaNova.


I’ve waited for this day for two years, and every day that has passed, I’ve regretted that the piece about which I’m writing couldn’t be sung and heard in every parish in this country (or world for that matter).

And here it is St. Valentine’s Day. And at last–thank you, blessed forward motion of time–the day has arrived when a wonderful choral work, accessible to all and as gorgeous as the great works of the Renaissance, is finally available to all: O Sacrum Convivium, by Michael Lawrence.

Yes, that Michael Lawrence who writes for the NLM. He is more than an author, organist, choir master, and theologian. He a marvelous and truly gifted composer as well, and this piece is his a prime example. It is modern, ancient, and timeless all at once, and bears all the marks of music that is truly sacred (beautiful, holy, universal). For all the genius of the composer that it bears, it is also an archetype of what new sacred music can be, and increasingly is, thanks to the independent publishers who are working to restore ideals in Catholic liturgy.

Our schola has been so fortunate to have a draft copy of this for two years. It might surprise people who know us but the truth is that out of all the music we sing–and our repertoire is vast–members would choose this piece as their favorite. Of all things, it is new piece.

I’ve wondered why, precisely, it works so well. It is not long, it has a orderly shape, its dynamics are inevitable, and it sets a text that remains somewhat familiar to Catholics. A reason that our schola loves it is that it flatters the ensemble. The voicing is about as perfect as one can imagine. Nothing is strained or awkward. When you sing it you feel like you are part of something rich and beautiful, and every singer feels good about that. There are no moments in the piece that almost fall apart. The piece always works to create a sound that is simple but always pointing heavenward.

I’m also drawn to how this piece demands a kind of timelessness when conducting. Essentially you can take it as slow as you want to. You don’t have to force it this way or that way. You just breath deep, start it, and it moves as if by a hidden hand. I must say, too, that my own ear is drawn to the way he handles the relationship between chords and text: clarity without triviality, innovation without experiment, and always deferential to the highest purpose of art, which is not to please us but to worship God.

Recently we conducted a workshop in another town and we took this piece with us, and tried out it on singers with far less experience. And this is true story: we sight read it before Mass and sang it for communion. Can you imagine? This is with a very inexperienced choir. It was just marvelous. After Mass, everyone wanted to know about this piece, where it came from, how they can hear it again. Though I have no interest in joining the copyright police squads, I didn’t photocopy ours because I knew that CanticaNova was coming out with this soon.

Now, that it is here, I am thrilled to be able to recommend it to all scholas everywhere. It might be that very piece you have been looking for, something that can be sung at nearly all Masses outside of Lent, and something you can put in even at the last minute. So many times we have found ourselves without a piece of music following communion, because the lines were longer than we expected, and we look around at each other wondering what to do. Then the whispers are next: “O Sacrum, O Sacrum,” and the pages of our schola books turn right to Mr. Lawrence’s piece.

It is written in D major for SATB, and the entire motet lasts only a few minutes. It can be sung by the most beginning choir or the most advanced. It is also a great way of showing that sacred music doesn’t have to be 500 years old. Great sacred music is being written today, and Canticanova is a excellent publisher. While you are there, look at other high quality work by Richard Rice and the many other composers who are writing today.

Finally a special congratulations to our dear friend Michael. We look forward to many more such compositions by you, ideally an entire collection for the whole of the liturgical year. In this work you are doing, as a composer of music, you are a servant of the faith. We thank you for helping all of us contribute to beautiful sounds on earth so that our minds and hearts can be drawn to eternity and the true source of all that is beautiful.

Coda: here is page 1 of Michael’s original manuscript, suitable for framing.