March 25, 2004
by BOB DORAN
SHE'S THE HEADLINER FOR SATURDAY'S BLUES NIGHT AT THE Redwood Coast Jazz Fest, but Tracy Nelson doesn't see herself as a blues singer. She also played at Blues by the Bay a few years back.
"That was the beginning of this craziness," she recalls when we begin a long talk on a rainy Sunday morning. The craziness is her association with Angela Strehli and her "lads" who back Tracy when she comes west.
Most of the time she's on her 80-acre farm outside of Nashville, where I caught up with her. Nelson moved to Tennessee in 1969 after a few years in the Bay Area, but before that she had started her music career in the Midwest. Her first album, Deep Are the Roots, was recorded in Chicago when she was just 19.
"I was going to college when I made that record. I grew up in Madison [Wisconsin]. There was a thriving folk blues community there during what I call the `folk scare' of the early '60s."
Nelson met blues historian/musician Sam Charters; he liked her voice and the result was a collection of old blues and jazz tunes with Charlie Musselwhite on harp. "We did it in Chicago for Prestige, but I still had no intention of going into the music business." Instead she wanted to be a social worker, a career she tried briefly (mostly to please her parents) before she "migrated out to California, got a job and hung around and realized I had as much talent as people who were making a lot of money."
Settling in the San Francisco Bay Area, she hooked up with a bunch of Texans to form a band called Mother Earth, a name chosen not for its hippie cred value, but because it was the title of a blues classic by Memphis Slim.
Nelson moved into a big house in Berkeley and the band became something like an extended family, with numerous dogs and kids running free. Nevertheless, they didn't quite fit into the area's late '60s hippie scene.
"Bill Graham liked us so we had a job. But we mystified a lot of those people to a degree because we didn't play psychedelic music. We played blues, R&B and a little bit of country, and that wasn't what people were playing. But we got a deal fairly easily, although I'm sure I was signed because they thought I was going to be the next Janis [Joplin]."
To this day Nelson is endlessly annoyed by fans asking, "Do you do Janis?" "It just makes me crazy, and there's no answer that satisfies them. If they ask for a specific song and we say we don't know it, they have to tell you why we should."
After one record, Mother Earth Living With the Animals, she left California. "The drug scene became so awful and besides, I wasn't a good hippie. I never fell into that groove. We were on tour and made a record in Nashville [Make a Joyful Noise] and I just never left. We had rented this farm, which I ended up keeping. I met all these musicians out here and I just loved it. I called the band and told them I was staying, and all of them, except for the two black musicians, came out to Tennessee."
The band, Mother Earth, ultimately fell by the wayside. And she didn't exactly miss being connected with the name.
"It had become sort of my nickname and people had expectations that I was some certain way. They would come to my farm looking for a place to crash like it was a commune. I decided it wasn't something I wanted laid on my shoulders."
After a while she slipped out of the music mainstream. "I stopped having any profile, anyway. In the '80s there was nothing going on that had anything to do with what I was doing. I had gigs but I wasn't with any record label."
In the early '90s she put out a series of records for Rounder, moving back towards blues, but as she insists, she doesn't play "real blues." Her most recent album, Live From Cell Block D, is in the tradition of prison records by artists like Johnny Cash. It includes a number of songs from her past, including "Tennessee Blues," which begins with a line that must have touched the hearts of the prisoners: "If I had my way, I'd leave here today, I'd leave in a hurry."
"It was incredibly evocative in that setting. I'm such a numb nut that I hadn't even thought about that beginning line; it hadn't even occurred to me what it would mean to them."
It also includes "Down So Low," a signature song that was on the first Mother Earth record and on her first solo album, Tracy Nelson.
"That's the first song I ever wrote," she said. Was the story, about a heartbreak so bad she "will never find another man to take his place," hypothetical? "Of course not. I had just had my heart broken big time. I can tell the story now, because it will soon be public knowledge. The song is going into a songwriter's exhibit at the Experience Music Project Museum up in Seattle. I wrote the song about Steve Miller. He broke my heart and I wrote a really great song about it. Thanks, Steve."
Talk turns from that bluesy song to the blues in general and the question: Is she a blues singer?
"I never considered myself a blues singer," she says with conviction. "Hell, I'm a white Norwegian from Madison. I've always been called a blues singer, but I never called myself one. I've heard real blues singers; I used to go to the clubs in Chicago when I lived in Wisconsin. To me, to be a blues singer you have to come from the blues era -- and you have to be black. There are plenty who play the tunes, play within the genre, I just can't bring myself to call them blues musicians. That doesn't keep people from calling me a blues singer, and I have to say, I've been called much worse."
Tracy Nelson sings along with Angela Strehli and her band Saturday night at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium as part of Blues Night at the Redwood Coast Jazz Festival. For ticket information, call 445-3378 or go to www.redwoodjazz.org.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.