Throughout her illustrious career, now spanning five decades, Tracy Nelson has never been one to abide boundaries. Certainly, in terms of musical genres, she’s been able to meld folk, blues, rock, country and whatever else you might throw at her into her own musical persona. Tracy has always been her own master, as strong of character as she is of voice.
While growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Tracy immersed herself in the R&B she heard beamed into her bedroom from Nashville’s WLAC. “It was like hearing music from Mars,” she recalls of the alien sounds that stirred her so. Later, she was bitten by the folk music bug, which she refers to as “the folk scare of the sixties.” As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, she combined her musical passions singing folk and blues at coffeehouses and R&B at frat parties as one of three singers fronting a band called The Fabulous Imitations when she was all of 18. In 1964 she went to Chicago to record her first album, Deep are the Roots, produced by Sam Charters, and released by Prestige Records. A young harmonica player from Memphis named Charlie Musselwhite played on the album and the two would explore the city’s famed south side where she met and was inspired by such legendary figures as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Spann and others.
A short time later, Tracy moved to San Francisco and, in the midst of the era’s psychedelic explosion, formed Mother Earth, a group that was named after the fatalistic Memphis Slim song of that title. True to its origin, the group was more grounded than freaky but, nonetheless, was a major attraction at The Fillmore where they encountered the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon who, as legend has it, was once bitten by Tracy’s dog. In 1968 Mother Earth recorded its first album, which included her own composition “Down So Low”. It became her signature song and was later to be covered by Etta James, Linda Rondstadt and Maria Muldaur.
The second Mother Earth album, Make a Joyful Noise, was recorded in Nashville in 1969, leading Tracy to rent a house and later buy a small farm in the area where she still lives today. As a side project, she soon recorded Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country for which she coaxed Elvis Presley’s original Sun-era guitarist Scotty Moore out of retirement to produce (with Pete Drake) and play on her rendition of Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup’s “That’s All Right Mama”. In a way, the phenomenon that is Tracy Nelson is encapsulated in that circumstance: it’s a blues song, made famous by a rock ‘n’ roller, recorded on a country album by a folkie turned Fillmore goddess, produced by a rockabilly cat and a pedal steel player. Eclecticism, thy name is Nelson.
After six Mother Earth albums for Mercury Records and Reprise Records, Nelson continued to record throughout the ‘70s as a solo artist on various labels. In 1974, she garnered her first Grammy nomination for “After the Fire is Gone”, a track from her Atlantic Records album, a hit duet with Willie Nelson. Willie (who, despite the rumors, is not related to Tracy although he contends they just might be “the illegitimate children of Ozzie and Harriet).
After a lengthy hiatus from recording in the 1980s, Tracy Nelson returned to the public eye in the 1990s, releasing a number of critically well received albums on the independent Rounder Records label. Her 1998 collaboration with label-mates Marcia Ball and Irma Thomas, Sing It, garnered a second Grammy nomination. During this comeback period she performed on American music television programs such as Sunday Night and Austin City Limits.
Her most recent projects include collaboration with blues-rock veterans Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Corky Siegel and Sam Lay. Billed as the Chicago Blues Reunion, the group toured major cities in 2005 and 2006.
Tracy Nelson is a singer without parallel in terms of both technical ability and emotional directness. John Swenson, writing in Rolling Stone, asserted, “Tracy Nelson proves that the human voice is the most expressive instrument in creation.”
With Victim of the Blues (2011), her 26th album in just over five decades, she has circled fully, back to the original music from South Side Chicago that mesmerized her teenaged mind in the mid-1960s.
‘‘Several years ago,’’ Nelson reveals now, ‘‘I was driving with a friend across Montana, tooling down I-90 hauling a 1962 Bambi II Airstream trailer, the one that looks like a toaster. We were making a trip to Hebron, North Dakota, where my grandfather homesteaded and built up a 2000+ acre ranch which he sold in the early ‘60s.’’
The current owners were about to tear down the old claim shack and she wanted to go back there one last time. The car windows were down and national blues DJ Bill Wax was on XM Satellite Radio - the great Otis Spann’s “One More Mile”, from his 1964 Prestige album, rolled out of the truck speakers. ‘‘It had always been a song I wanted to do’’ Nelson recalls, ‘‘and that started me thinking about all the great Chicago blues songs and artists I had heard in my formative years, especially Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. This was around the time I made my first record, Deep Are the Roots.’’
She thought, too, of just a few years ago when she was touring nationally as part of a well-known Chicago blues revue, playing a lot of blues festivals. ‘‘The music I heard back in the day in Chicago and what I was hearing from the current crop of blues acts bore little relation to each other.’’
From that memorable day in the Badlands hearing “One More Mile”, she decided it was time to make a record with, she says, ‘‘some of those fine old songs and be as true and authentic to the style as a Norwegian white girl from Wisconsin could manage it.’’
The new album, Victim of the Blues, is a hand-picked collection of songs, most written by Nelson’s early heroes - Muddy Waters (“One More Mile”), Jimmy Reed (“Shoot Him”), Percy Mayfield (“Stranger in My Own Hometown”), Lightning Hopkins (“Feel So Bad”), Joe Tex (“The Love You Save”) and Howlin’ Wolf (“Howlin’ for My Baby”). She has chosen eleven songs of the day, ones that were spilling out of AM radios from second-story apartments, rolled-down car windows, and live from darkened clubs with exotic names, like El Macambo.
In late July, 2010, Nelson was featured on NPR’s Weekend Edition, a little more than a month after the tragic fire that took the 100+ year old farmhouse she shared with longtime partner Mike Dysinger. She was just beginning to deal with the aftermath of losing her home and many of her personal belongings. ‘‘The firemen told us they could save one room - we had to decide - we said ‘the studio.’’’ This album, Victim of the Blues, is the album that miraculously survived the fire. And that is the reason that the first people Nelson thanks in this album’s notes are the Burns, Tennessee, Volunteer Fire Department.
To date, there have been several benefits across the country to assist the two in rebuilding their farmhouse on the land they love. Seeing as how her first Grammy nomination was for After the Fire Is Gone, with Willie Nelson, she would say drolly, ‘‘It seemed like the perfect thing to call these events.’’
Nelson had titled this album before the fire, so the irony is not missed on her. Victim of the Blues is as deeply felt as anything she has recorded in her exceptional career.