Graceland: Happy Birthday Willie Nelson!

We celebrate the birthday of Willie Nelson’s, who was born during the final minutes of April 29, 1933 (so that his birthday is sometimes reported as April 30) in Abbott, Texas. One of my favorite Willie Nelson CDs is Across the Borderline, which was produced by Don Was. The CD was released in 1993, during a traumatic period in Nelson’s life, a few years after his troubles with the IRS had come to a head. AllMusic rates the album highly and refers to it as an album surveying two decades of popular music by a wide variety of music writers. There are a number of guests on the CD, including Bob Dylan singing with Nelson on “Heartland,” a song the two legends wrote together. Despite the variety, though, there is a cohesion in the CD as the theme of loss weaves throughout the songs.

Every song on the album is excellent, but standouts include the cover of two Paul Simon songs, “American Tune” and “Graceland.” I cannot find an article about the background behind “Graceland” (so don’t quote me), but I recall Paul Simon saying in an interview that he had always wanted Nelson to sing “Graceland” ever since he wrote it. Simon, who ended up playing guitar and producing the Nelson version, had to persuade Nelson to record “Graceland.” Nelson finally agreed as he eventually saw the meaning underlying the song.

While I love Paul Simon’s version, Nelson’s voice really works well on the song, as he develops the aching notes of loss and sadness throughout the tune. When I hear Simon’s version, I think of the lyrics about the human trampoline bouncing into Graceland. But in Nelson’s version, I learned to see the loss in lines such as, “She comes back to tell me she’s gone/ As if I didn’t know that. . . As if I’d never noticed / The way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”

Throughout the album Across the Borderline and its themes surrounding life’s pain and wreckage, there are moments of hope. The album ends with “Still is Still Moving to Me,” a Nelson original that invokes Eastern and taoist beliefs in keeping on and accepting. Similarly, the song “Graceland” ends with hope out of the loss: “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland.”

The recording of the song on Across the Borderline is one of those rare moments when two musical geniuses are able to take what was already an outstanding song and make it powerfully relevant to a new singer. On the album, Nelson does all the singing, but in this version below, the two come together for a live performance to sing “Graceland” together. It is a a nice way to celebrate Nelson’s birthday today.

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