An Interview with Tracy Nelson one of the signature artist of american music and a fountain of human soul

"Blues touches something real in an increasingly superficial and non-communicative world. Facebook and Twitter go for the least common denominator; Blues goes straight to the heart."

Tracy Nelson: Mother Earth's Treasure

A very versatile and talented vocalist, Tracy Nelson was born and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. There she first learned about R&B music from WLAC radio in Nashville. In her teens, Nelson sang folk music in coffeehouses and with a group called The Fuller's Wood Singers and was lead singer in a band called The Fabulous Imitations.

In 1964, Nelson recorded the acoustic blues album Deep Are the Roots, which was produced by Sam Charters. It featured Charlie Musselwhite among her backup band. In Chicago, where the album was recorded, Nelson met and learned from artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Otis Spann.

Nelson moved to San Francisco in 1966, where she became part of the music scene there. Her band Mother Earth played the Fillmore Auditorium, sharing bills with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. In the late 1960s Nelson relocated to Nashville, where she and Mother Earth recorded the album Make A Joyful Noise and the solo effort Tracy Nelson Country. Nelson made a total of six albums with Mother Earth and she has continued to record as a solo artist. After a lengthy hiatus from recording in the 1980s, Nelson released several albums on the independent Rounder Records label in the 1990s. Her 1998 collaboration with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas "Sing It" garnered a second Grammy nomination.

Since the early 2000s, Nelson has recorded for various independent record labels. She released her first in concert album "Live From Cell Block D" in 2004. Other projects include was Chicago Blues Reunion, a collaboration with blues-rock veterans Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Corky Siegel, Sam Lay, and The Blues Broads with Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson, and Dorothy Morrison. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in life have triggered your ideas for your songs?

Generally a broken heart or someone else's but once I found an injured dog lying on the side of the road and took him to the vet who said he had to be put down. As he passed on I patted his head and said, "Somebody loves you old guy." That became a whole song about needing and finding love.

What characterize Tracy’s music philosophy?

Do I like it, does it move me, and do I believe it.

"I did my last record, Victim of the Blues, the way I did. I wanted to try to put out something that was at least marginally reminiscent of the music I first heard in Chicago."

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Right now. I'm working with three other amazingly talented women, Angela Strehli, Annie Sampson and Dorothy Morrison and having the most fun and fulfillment ever.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Singing with the aforementioned women and doing the trio with Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas who both Marcia and I idolize. Also, in the early 60's when I was hanging with Charlie Musselwhite, he took me to see Muddy Waters at Peppers on the south side of Chicago. I was using a fake ID to get into the club as I was 19 and the legal age was 21. As the bouncer was checking my ID, Otis Spann came up and Charlie began to introduce me- I jumped in and said my name was Marion, the name on the ID I was using. We then joined Otis at a table with Muddy Waters for god's sake. Charlie introduced me by my real name and when Otis looked confused we explained that I was only 19, hence the fake name and ID. The next set Muddy got up and said, "I'm dedicating this next song to Charlie's woman," and launched into 19 Years Old. Still gives me shivers to hear that song

Worst - I don't like to dwell on the bad things that have happened. There have been many, band members being drunk and belligerent, promoters stiffing me and/or propositioning me or threatening me. Beloved friends and artists OD-ing, but they're pushed back and not brought out much.

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with Mother Earth?

We were in the middle of recording our first record in SF when Albert Grossman, famed manger of Janis Joplin and most of the other big names of the era, walked into the control room, uninvited I might add. Travis, our manager, thought he might be checking me out as possible competition for Janis. Fat chance. My dog Katie was lying on the sofa next to me when I got up to introduce myself. I immediately noted that he was rather expensively and incongruously dressed in a nice suit, camel hair overcoat and very snazzy Italian looking shoes. He acknowledged me briefly and walked over to the couch, shoved Katie off and sat down. Katie, who was accustomed to being boss of the room, trotted over to my side, sat for a moment and then headed back over to where Albert was sitting and threw up on his shoes. I had to leave the room I was laughing so hard.

"Do I like it, does it move me, and do I believe it." (Photo: Tracy Nelson, Eric Burdon and Jimi Hendrix)

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

At the end of a festival in Southern California, we all got up did a couple of songs together. There's a picture and some footage of it on youtube. Left to right it's me, Eric Burdon, Buddy Miles, Jimi Hendrix, and Lee Oskar. Pretty much fun. Last time I ever did steps.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The above mentioned one, and one with Bukka White at the Avelon in SF. Also, in 1970 one of the first gigs we played outside of San Francisco was an anti-war concert at Madison Square Garden. We were on the bill with Janis Joplin, Peter Paul and Mary, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, I think, every major act of the time. It was pretty daunting,  first time out, and quite thrilling.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Meeting Otis Spann and Muddy Waters, Big Walter Horton, and Howlin Wolf with Charlie; and Irma Thomas at an Elks Lodge, deep in the bayous of Louisiana. Also meeting and working with Scotty Moore, DJ Fontana, the Jordenaires, Pete Drake, and Johnny Gimble when I first moved to Nashville.

"Blues Rock certainly exists but as far as it being real blues, I'd have to say no."

What do you miss most nowadays from the 60s?

Not a damn thing except maybe the freedom we had to do any kind of music and still have it play on the radio. Way too much drugs and pointless arrogance around at the time.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

My grandmother played a gig the night before she died at age 87. That's both my hope and fear.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

June Carter once told me to be nice to everybody, because how you treat people will follow you the rest of your life and you don't want to look back and cringe. Its advice I've followed with limited success altho I'm better at it in my 60's than I was in my 30's. I'd give the same advice now and meeting June Carter was another high point in my life.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul, Country and continue to Jazz and Folk music?

There is certainly a thread between blues and country music. Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, and Elvis all drew from the old blues songs if not the artists themselves. And a lot of the classic country songs came from the old Appalachian folk tunes. Soul grew out of blues and the black churches. Jazz evolved from blues as musicians got more complicated. So there are connections or parallels all through the lineage of music.

Are there any memories from folk era in coffeehouses which you’d like to share with us?

I remember the first coffeehouse gig I ever did. I had a job playing at a hootenanny, which was all the rage at the time, at a college in Milwaukee. The promoter said there was a coffeehouse nearby, called the Avant Garde that I should check out. I was dressed in my best good-guy clothes, which as I recall was a green mohair shift and gold shoes, and the minute I walked in I knew I was hideously overdressed. Everyone there turned and stared at me as we walked across the room. I went up to the club manager and asked if I could do a few songs. He said yes and I found out later they thought it would be funny to hear this straight chick do Kingston Trio songs or whatever in that heavily bohemian context. If I do say so myself, I played a pretty good blues guitar, good picking and my voice was already pretty big. I opened up with Judy Henske's High Flying Bird and they quit smirking and paid attention and gave me a good response. I went on to play there every couple of weeks and got to open several times with my idols, Koerner, Ray And Glover of Blues Rags and Hollers fame. I really need to pick up the guitar again. I couldn't make how I played translate to R&B and concentrated more on piano when I started working with bands.

Which memory from Chicago Blues Reunion and the Blues Broads makes you smile?

Hardly anything from the CBR except getting to know Sammy Lay and most everything from the Broads, particularly singing with Dorothy on Oh Happy Day.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it touches something real in an increasingly superficial and non-communicative world. Facebook and Twitter go for the least common denominator; Blues goes straight to the heart.

What is the relation between music, lyrics, poetry and activism?

Personally, I don't like to mix songwriting with activism. To me a song that requires that you think takes away from the most important part of music, feeling. That's just me and there are certainly some great protest songs. I personally lead many anti-war rallies in We Shall Overcome when I was a student, and I've revived If I were Free To Speak My Mind occasionally. And Garth Brooks' We Shall Be Free is brilliant and emotional and I'd like to do it with The Blues Broads.

"June Carter once told me to be nice to everybody, because how you treat people will follow you the rest of your life and you don't want to look back and cringe."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

I laughed out loud at the mock picture of the British Royal Couple hanging the baby over the railing of a hotel with a cloth on his head, a la the Michael Jackson photo, and the story of Bob Dylan being picked up by the cops as he strolled thru a New Jersey suburb because someone reported that an old man dressed and behaving strangely, was wandering thru the neighborhood. As a friend said, it's a good thing he wasn't in Florida.

And that brings me to what has touched me recently. The horrendously awful verdict in the Trayvon Martin case has left me angry and heartbroken. I can't watch any of the coverage of his parent without weeping. We have some huge problems with race and guns in this country and it is deeply troubling.

How has the music changed over the years? Do you believe in the existence of real blues rock nowadays?

Mine hasn't changed much. I still love R&B and Blues and gospel, which I can now do, being a non-believer in a group with two women who believe deeply, without feeling completely hypocritical. Blues Rock certainly exists but as far as it being real blues, I'd have to say no. What I hear at festivals these days hardly resemble even the second generation attempts we made in the 60's and 70's. That's why I did my last record, Victim of the Blues, the way I did. I wanted to try to put out something that was at least marginally reminiscent of the music I first heard in Chicago.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day?

I'd love to be in Montana in the 1800's on a horse, or on a boat going down the Mississippi when it flowed thru still virgin territory. It must have been so beautiful, still is in part of Montana. I'd also like to be have been in Mississippi when Bessie Smith had her fatal accident to try to get her to a local hospital instead of what happened, taking her miles away to one that accepted black people and thus failing to save her life. I'd also love to have heard her and Ma Rainey live in clubs in their heyday. Like to have met Robert Johnson too.

I could go on for hours about most of this stuff but I'm writing a series of autobiographical murder mysteries, the first set in San Francisco in the 60's and the next in Nashville in the 70's, and I don't want to blow my whole repertoire now. Thanks for the opportunity to reminisce. It's been fun and you asked very challenging questions.

Tracy Nelson - official website

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