Long acclaimed as one of the truly great singers of the modern era, at 66 Tracy Nelson still has the fire for performing great songs. Her latest project, Victim of the Blues, is a loving caress to her original passion: Old-school blues, particularly the Chicago variety.
Nelson's first album, Deep Are the Roots, was on the vintage Prestige label, home to people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Otis Spann. For a 19-year-old white girl of Norwegian descent, recording with Charlie Musselwhite in Chicago for Prestige and cutting blues standards must have been a dream come true and a huge nod to her talent.
And while Nelson's repertoire has always included the blues from her days leading seminal hippie blues-rock band Mother Earth, through her Nashville period where she made country albums that only hipsters got - except, of course, her giant, Grammy-nominated duet with Willie Nelson, "After the Fire Is Gone" (1974), which alerted a much wider listening audience to the power of her golden throat.
The song is still in regular rotation on classic country stations.
These days Nelson lives 30 miles outside Nashville with her significant other, producer/engineer Mike Dysinger. Rocks Off spoke with her by phone there about Victim of the Blues and life in general.
"This new record is just songs I hadn't done and wanted to do," she says. "It really was inspired by hearing Otis Spann's "One More Time" on Bill Wax's XM radio show while I was on a driving trip."
"I just love iTunes," Nelson explains. "I lost most of my records and CDs in a house fire about a year ago, so it took a while to put together a list of songs I wanted to do on this album. This is the only record I've ever made where I actually had to do some serious research.
"And thank God for iTunes. I'd just call up a subject like Muddy Waters, and iTunes threw up basically everything he ever did. It took some time to wade through it all and come up with a list that hung together, but what a wonderful tool to have."
While most of the tunes are by noted Chicago bluesmen like Waters, Willie Dixon and Howlin' Wolf, Nelson also reached down to Houston for a Lightnin' Hopkins tune, "Feel So Bad," although she noted that her version is truer to Little Milton's version.
"I played Liberty Hall in Houston about 1975 and I was on a bill with Lightnin'," she says. "In fact, I'm standing right here in front of the poster from that show that I have on my wall. I always liked playing Houston.
"And Lighnin' was so kind to me, we had a lot of fun on that show."
Nelson recorded the basic tracks for Victim in Nashville with a band of aces fronted by monster guitarist Mike Henderson, who makes his real bread touring with Mark Knopfler or playing in steroidal bluegrass band Steeldrivers.
"Mike is such a stellar player, he's been on all my Nashville records, I think," she says. "On Ma Rainey's original version of 'Victim of the Blues,' there was a banjo, so I asked Mike if he had a banjo and he said 'No, but I've got a banjolin.' And sure enough he pulled out this thing that was half banjo, half mandolin. Of course, it sounded perfect."
"All the players are such killers," she notes, "we never cut any basic track more than twice, and even then it was hard to say 'This one is better than that one.' That's the beauty of being near Nashville, you can get amazing players to record.
"My next project is going to be a jazz record," she says, " but the players will all be from Nashville."
Nelson hasn't played in Texas in years, but hopes to play some dates later this year.
"I'd rather do anything than try to book shows," she laughs. "Hopefully my agent can hook us up, because I do want to play Texas with this record."
Nelson recorded the album on her own - "it takes longer that way, but there are no deadlines and you aren't done until you're satisfied with it," she says - and licensed it to Los Angeles blues label Delta Blues.
"Their roster includes lots of my friends like Elvin Bishop, so it makes sense for me," she explains. "And they've got the resources to promote the record and try to get radio play and all that. I hate all that stuff, and I'd rather make less money than have to be putting the CDs in envelopes and addressing them and all that."
So does Nashville and the business of music figure into her life these days?
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"Not really. We don't go to Nashville much. There are some things that I can't get at the grocery store here, so about once a month I'll drive in and stock up at Whole Foods. But otherwise, we have a little studio here in the house, and there's a bigger studio a couple of blocks away if we really need to do something there.
"But Nashville doesn't really figure in our lives much."