Tracy Nelson:
Living Well

June 12, 2001
By Russ Ringsak

It's been four decades since singer Tracy Nelson started entertaining audiences with her gutsy blend of country and blues. And if her most recent CD, Ebony & Irony, is any indication, she's as soulful and dynamic as ever.

Nelson began her career in Madison, Wisconsin, where she grew up listening to WLAC from Nashville, one of the only black music radio stations that reached Middle America. At 15, Nelson —already in college— joined a Rhythm & Blues Revue that played at frat parties at the University of Wisconsin, probably one of the tougher crowds a young woman could have to deal with. She had no desire to sing for a living; had to be "dragged, kicking and screaming" into show business. She says she tried to make a living at everything else she wanted to do, including social work, but the bureaucracy of it all would become overwhelming and drive her away.

She finally caved in when she was in San Francisco in the late 60s to visit friends and saw "people who were just learning to play, and they were making immense amounts of money" (a scene still repeated today). She turned pro out of economic necessity, created the group Mother Earth, and became bureaucracy's gift to the national musical legacy.

In 1968 she recorded her first Mother Earth record, which contained her signature song "Down So Low," later to be covered by Etta James, Linda Rondstadt and Maria Muldaur.

Finding the San Francisco scene "a little too freaky," Nelson moved just outside of Nashville in 1969. Today, she lives on a farm northwest of the city, in a valley of small farms of which hers, at 80 acres, is the smallest. When called on last week, she was trying to protect a cat from a heavy dive-bombing by blue jays, who are uncommonly aggressive around there; she recently had the misfortune of coming outdoors when there were young jays on the ground and was subjected to a nightmare scene right out of "The Birds." But any time your biggest problem is a few blue jays, you know things aren't all that bad; she spends as much time on the farm as she is able.

In the 70s, Nelson made several more Mother Earth albums, then continued to record as a solo artist. After playing mostly live concerts in the 80s, Nelson cut a straight blues album In the Here and Now (Rounder Records) in 1993. She followed it with two more blues records, before choosing to follow her muse back to the eclectic music she played with Mother Earth.

Her new album, Ebony & Irony (Relentless/Nashville-Eclectic Records), is her 20th and the album she says she "always wanted to make." The album is a terrific work; a great range of grooves and moods, wonderful players throughout. It's jazzy, bluesy, country, R&B, tough and tender. Her liner notes alone are worth the price of the CD.

She's cut back on her touring lately and when she does she tries to build in enough down time to get around and see the area. The standard plane-hotel-venue-hotel-plane itinerary with no breaks between, she says, is not for her these days. Like most groups in the early days of rock, there was a good deal of wacky behavior on the road, most of it not what one would put in a PR release. Pressed for a mild example, she recalled playing in an upscale club one night and when she introduced her drummer as "a brand new proud papa," two women at two different tables slammed their drinks down and stormed out of the room, quite visibly upset. And a guitar player of hers once spent an entire evening trying to keep between two sisters he was seeing, each of whom not only didn't know of his dual involvement but didn't even know the other was at the gig.

She's had road managers that stole from her and those that just disappeared, and she had one who picked up a guy backstage and pinned him to the wall with his feet in mid-air, just because he wouldn't get out of her way quick enough for him. She said, "I was pounding my manager on the back, hollering Let him down! Let the man down! Another guy used to pay strangers ten bucks to help load the gear and we'd get to the next gig, 200 miles away, and we'd have half our gear and half of some local opening act's stuff, and of course they'd have the same thing back there. It got pretty nuts sometimes."

But that was back in the old days. Everyone's grown up now, and it's not as funny but there's a lot less hassle. She enjoys the hour and a half on stage and a certain amount of the travel, but generally touring is a lot of work. She's performed a lot in Great Britain and a little bit in Norway, and of course all of the U.S. and Canada many times. And through all of it, she's never yet been to the Grand Canyon.

Seasoned before audiences well before becoming a professional, she can recall only once when she was scared to go out on stage: her first Mother Earth album had been released and was a success, and she was part of monster show in Madison Square Garden, the Moratorium Concert, a protest against the war in 'Nam. Everyone was there, all the stars of the time, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Peter, Paul and Mary and dozens of others, all the big names of the 70s, and the place was packed. It was an intimidating gig, everything about it. She obviously came through it just fine, although she didn't come right out and say that.

Joining Nelson for the Memphis show, on Saturday, June 16, are: Brian Fullen (drums), Sam Stafford (guitar), Toni Sehulster (bass), Dwight Scott (keyboards), Alice Newman (vocals), and Reba Russell (vocals).

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