On Willie Nile
Willie Nile has been around for a long time. His first CD, self-titled, was released in 1980. All told, he’s released 10 CDs, including three live issues. He’s been onstage with just about everyone, including Bruce Springsteen. And yet…and yet. He’s another great artist I’d never experienced until my friend and music supplier Tommy Shea sent me along one of his world-famous “Best of–Sort of” CDs.
He wrote, “Willie Nile has had Dylan’s son sing back up on one of his songs. Roger McGuinn played on one album. Bono is a friend. Bruce has brought Willie up to the stage a bunch of times. Willie has even opened for the Saw Doctors! He comes from the Buddy Holly/Bob/Bruce school of music. He’s also a wicked nice guy. I hope you like him.”
Well, Tommy Shea has pretty much pegged my musical tastes since I met the man, so I was not at all surprised that I do in fact like what I’ve heard now of Willie Nile. However, from what I can tell, Tommy’s characterization pretty much covers both Willie Nile’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s got a Bob Dylan voice, raspy, sometimes exuberant, sometimes melancholy; like Dylan, he has a tendency to slide around a melody, establishing a tenuous relationship with the notes, on the way to constructing a song. He also has a Tom Petty guitar, with what I’ve come to think of as the driving Floridian style (though Nile was born in Buffalo and lives in New York City). A perfect song to illustrate this is “Run” from House of a Thousand Guitars: it opens with a frenzied guitar that always makes me feel like leaping into the car and roaring off down the road, power-shifting all the way…and then Willie’s voice, high and excited. Whatever comparisons this song engenders, he knows what he’s doing:
I’ve got the pulse of the universe pumping through my veins
I’ve got the sound of the stratosphere beating in my brain
From the beginning, he’s got us up and running as fast as we can.
While we’re on the subject of that particular CD, the title song, “House of a Thousand Guitars,” is a bit raucous as well–Willie Nile does raucous well, rather in the vein of Bruce Springsteen (with whom he has played many a time). It’s a song that sings the praises of the players Willie Nile apparently admires: Jimmy Hendrix, Robert Johnson, and the like–
You can spread your finger across the universe in the house of a thousand guitars.
John Lennon, Muddy Waters, man you can do worse in the house of a thousand guitars.
Well you can walk bare foot on broken glass in the house of a thousand guitars.
Cause Mr. John Lee Hooker’s gonna kick your ass in the house of a thousand guitars.
It’s a fun sort of tribute; and it’s always nice to know where artists place themselves in the canon, at least in terms of their musical forbears. It’s also a pretty good dancing song, and there are days when that’s really all you need.
Also included on Tommy’s “Best of (Sort of) Willie Nile” CD are some slower, more meditative pieces. “Heart of Wonder” from Hard Times in America is one such song. The lead instrument here, though, is Nile’s piano, and of necessity, this sort of instrumentation thrusts his voice to the fore. It’s here that Nile’s vocal similarity to Bob Dylan becomes frightfully obvious. According to my son the live-in music critic, it’s the best work in the collection; but Ben, unlike me, is a big Dylan fan (is that sacrilege?). While I like the song, it’s far from my favorite: I miss the guitar. I miss the raucousness. I miss the edginess and inventiveness of some of Nile’s other lyrics (Elvis and Hank Williams, though, do get a nod in this song). This same feeling comes to me listening to “Tiorunda Surprise” from Beautiful Wreck of the World: that’s nice–now let’s move! Willie Nile’s driving songs have spoiled me.
I’m also spoiled by finding that the third song on this CD is called “Asking Annie Out.” Now, granted, no one calls me Annie and lives (save Jim Pike, the most wonderful theater teacher and director in the history of mankind). But it’s kind of fun to play a CD and find a real bit of dancing music, almost named after me.
P. S. 2:
Thanks as always, Tommy. You’re batting 3-for-3.