Just One Song 002

Thursday, 19 April 2012

[Editor's Note: Just One Song is a little different from the standard Ground Control fare because its interest and focus is in (as the title suggests) just one song. Which song? Well, it could be any number of songs; it could be the song that spawned a life-long fan of the band who wrote and recorded it, or it could be the song that inspired the column author to stop listening completely. It could be the song that signaled the return of a particular band to the pinnacle of its powers as a creative entity or simply the one song which signals the return of a band after an extended absence from active duty. All of these events begin with just one song, because that's all a band might get to make an impression; the average listener may not be patient enough to even wait for a second before turning their radio – or CD player or record player or mp3 player (pick a format) – off. One song is a very, very big deal. This column is dedicated to a series of “One Songs,” and how they've inspired the writer, in one way or another.]

While country music institution Willie Nelson has never been quiet about his appreciation for what Black Sabbath coyly called the “Sweet Leaf,” the singer has really amped up his advocacy for the legalization of marijuana since the mid-Nineties. Since his cameo appearance as a wide-eyed cracker of diminished pupils in Barry Levinson's black comedy Wag The Dog in 1997, in fact, Nelson has boldly seemed to relish in his stature as one of the higher (no pun intended) profile personalities on the NORML membership rolls; no longer tepidly slinking around on the edges of the cinematic frame as he did in Thief, the singer now stands front, center and stoned in films like Half Baked, Dukes Of Hazzard, Blond Ambition, Swing Vote and Surfer, Dude, happily challenging societal comfort zones (this writer remembers watching his grandfather curse the singer for being “on dope” while appearing on camera years ago) and popular images which express the discrepancy between age, level of success, activism and drug use.

All of that posturing and petitioning for “the cause” is one thing but, on the chance that our readers were too stoned to catch it, Nelson has been known to go one step further on occasion and furnish fans with some pretty blunt (no pun intended) statements of community association too; one of the largest was the singer's reggae album, Countryman (released in 2004), but some other slightly less heavy-handed peripheral references have been laced through his other musical work as well. While some might contend (and many have done so) that the more plainly evident and clear references to marijuana that Willie Nelson has pressed between the pages of his songbook have been totally self-serving image manipulation to make the singer an eternal dope-smoking figurehead and done nothing to improve the stature of the cause he's trying to support, others will shrug off complaints and contend that such things are totally permissible because they're funny and totally harmless – nothing more. That's a fair enough argument to make – and those who choose to make it will have their new favorite example when they hear “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” the all-star laugh-in and smoke-out which appears on Heroes, Nelson's new album to be released on May 15, 2012 on Legacy/Columbia Records.

From the moment they first hear the song, fans will find it impossible to deny that “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” is about as fluffy as a baby duck and really only seeks to have all the fun it can with as many “entertainer images as possible, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Joined by Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson, listeners might assume that Willie Nelson is offering them nothing but a great big bag of shake committed to tape (come on – that combination has “novelty” written all over it) which could only hope to produce a few giggles but, surprisingly, there's more at work here than just that. In fact, the song succeeds in making the best of a dicey situation and even helps everyone involved renovate their images and respective sounds a little bit. First and foremost, what's immediately noticeable in “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me…” is that Nelson is taking the opportunity to leap into the brave new world of digital recording as, with a crisp, tidy and tight Nashville backing, the singer steps up tall and articulates every last syllable of his primary vocal contribution to the song. This sounds like an all-new Nelson which could only the the result of the normally unforgiving digital atmosphere in which the performance was captured (let's be honest – more than in any other recording format, “clipping” in digital recording is brutal and digital “twinkling” is a disgusting bi-product of the medium) – but the singer makes it work here, with an almost regal glow about him. Likewise, Snoop is afforded the chance to prove that he really does have a singing voice which rolls out as smoothly as brushed velvet when his vocal contribution to the song comes forth. That isn't to say Snoop may indeed be the next Quincy Jones in disguise, only that the emcee is an able singer – which may mean he'll be able to segue into soul when he realizes that “hip hop as made by a geriatric” might be an unwise career turn to make. In that sense too, Kristofferson appears rejuvenated here as he finally buries his moldy, Seventies-inspired songwriting, lightens up and just has a bit of fun with the boys. The one performer with the most to gain by his inclusion here (but the least to offer) turns out to be Jamey Johnson but, hilariously, his vocal contribution turns out to be the most forgettable as he sort of trips and falls behind the others vocally, and doesn't offer much.

The fact that Johnson really appears in name only on this recording notwithstanding though, the song is satisfying and exciting because it throws open some new creative possibilities for the other artists involved to test more in-depth on future releases of their own without necessarily feeling committed to them. Whether they do or not though (and presumably they don't – “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” is the only song of its genre-blending ilk on Heroes), at least listeners have this track as proof that such work and generic manipulation is possible. There's no doubt it's novel, but “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” brims with some exciting possibilities for some old hands.



“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die” will appear on Heroes by Willie Nelson. The album will be released on May 15, 2012 on Legacy/Columbia Records. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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