To hear Tracy Nelson tell it, her decision to ask Willie Nelson to sing a duet with her on "After the Fire Is Gone" was mostly just kismet meeting standard industry practice.
"I loved that song and knew I wanted to cover it just as soon as I heard the Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn version that was such a huge hit in 1971," recalls Nelson, no relation to the Red Headed Stranger, from her home outside Nashville.
Primarily considered a blues singer, she had recently left her band Mother Earth and signed a solo deal with Atlantic Records. Written by L.E. White, a close associate of Twitty's who had been in Bill Monroe's band before turning mostly to songwriting, "After The Fire Is Gone" was Twitty and Lynn's first No. 1 as a duo. It also won them a Grammy for Best Country Duet.
While Nelson loved the song, she was underwhelmed by her version of it.
"As soon as I heard the playback, I knew I needed a male part," she recalls. "It just didn't work with me singing it by myself."
She learned from the Atlantic office in Nashville that labelmate Willie Nelson happened to be in town. By 1974, Willie's career makeover as a Texas outlaw was proving to be like the shot heard round the world. Turning his back on the system and its gatekeepers, he became the king of Austin and brought Nashville to heel like the Goths sacked Rome. Ms. Nelson tracked Willie down by phone and they made arrangements for him to come to the studio that night and take a shot at the track.
"We were on the same label, so the whole thing just seemed to make sense," says Tracy. "We were basically done. This was one of the last parts we needed. The problem was, Willie wanted to work really late and I'd already been at it all day."
While awaiting Willie's arrival, Ms. Nelson went to the Exit/In, a popular Nashville live-music venue.
"So I walk in there really just to kill some time, and I run into Linda Ronstadt, who was in town performing with Johnny Cash at the prison," Nelson reflects. "So I told her what was happening and that she should come back to the studio and join in on this."
Willie finally arrived and, as Tracy describes it, "the whole thing was just a hoot, very organic feeling."
"We were all very relaxed. Willie and I thought it was actually kind of funny, because we were such an unlikely pairing. I just remember all of us being very loose, not feeling any pressure, just having a good time."
Willie did a couple of takes, and then Ronstadt added some harmonies and the session broke up.
"He just nailed it," says Nelson. "I loved Willie already, but that night I got a glimpse of why he is so popular and so loved, because he's not just a country singer, he can sing anything."
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"It was all very whimsical and somewhat haphazard and turned out to be one of the most successful things I ever did," Nelson recalls. "I'll forever be honored to have been able to perform with Willie."
Atlantic liked what it heard and released "After The Fire Is Gone" as a single to country radio. It sprouted wings and took off, finally running out of steam at No. 17 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. There was nothing else out there like it -- it pulled no punches, there was no dumbing down, it was so outside the loop it worked.
"We were so lucky because John Fisher, the Atlantic Nashville guy, just loved that song," says Tracy. "He went all out for us, radio, promotion, you name it. Every time we'd get some startling bit of cool news about the song, it seemed to always have happened because of something John Fisher had done."
"And because the single did so well, Willie and Waylon and those guys kind of adopted us," she continues. "We'd find ourselves on bills with them or playing at the same festivals. So there was a lot of friendship that developed from Willie and I having done that one song together. Waylon Jennings will always be one of my favorite people."
"My band and I dined out on that song for a few years," she laughs. "We'd go in to a play someplace where a guy like Ferlin Husky had been the weekend before. We weren't really a country band at all, but that song got us a lot of bookings in some unlikely places."
"Someone just sent me a video of us doing the song on Ralph Emery's show Pop! Goes the Country with Willie's band. That was such a strange moment in time, Willie and I both sort of outsiders doing Ralph's show."
The song, which turned out to be the highest-charting tune in Ms. Nelson's career, earned both artists 1974 Grammy nominations for best country duet.
"The oddest thing is that the same week Willie and I were nominated for Grammys, Atlantic let both of us go," she laughs. "Is this a crazy business or what?"
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