Throughout most of his six-decade career Willie Nelson has defied convention, avoiding safe formulas to pursue a unique, unpredictable artistic vision. Thus it's fitting that one of America's most popular, influential and revered entertainers will be honored on Friday at the Maui Film Festival with the 2009 Maverick Award.
This remarkable American icon suggests that his renegade path probably stems from his admiration for Western swing legend Bob Wills.
"It might be as simple as my big hero when I was growing up was Bob Wills," says Willie. "He had such control over the music, what happened on stage, and in the studio. I just felt he had the right idea. It wasn't that I wanted to go against my associates, I didn't think they knew as much about what I wanted to do. In the beginning I did it kind of their way. It worked to a degree, but not the way I wanted. Then I started trying to do it my way, and it took a while for anybody to realize I could sell records."
DAVID McCLISTER photo
The recently released "Naked Willie" album showcases some of the country artist's early music from the 1960s, now stripped of the overproduced, syrupy strings and backing vocals characteristic of Nashville recordings of the time.
"I assumed they knew more than I did," Willie continues. "They had the money and it was their job to sell my records, so I kind of had to let them do it. That was the time when everybody was trying to go pop. You didn't want to hear Hank Williams any more; you wanted something that would cross over. All the strings and voices used in Nashville at that time I felt were overused. I wanted to just go in the studio with my band, and that was unheard of."
Bucking the Nashville establishment, Willie was finally granted artistic approval for his brilliant, self-produced concept album "Red Headed Stranger." Confounding record label skeptics, the album sold multiplatinum and produced a No. 1 hit with "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
"It was my first album for CBS and I said, let me do it my way," he recalls. "There was a little resistance. They thought it was a demo, but when it sells and makes money people quit arguing. I went in and did it for $20,000, and that didn't make a lot of producers happy, because it showed everybody you don't need to spend six months and a million dollars to make music. So I went against the grain in that way."
And then Willie had to convince his record label that releasing a collection of standards was not commercial suicide. Many country industry insiders predicted it would bomb. "Stardust" spent a decade on the country charts and sold more than 4 million copies.
"You hear all these arguments, they were a bunch of old songs and nobody's going to buy them again," Willie notes. "And my argument was, if they sold once they will sell again. I just believed in the material, and that people would like to hear new versions of 'Stardust' and 'Georgia.' Like 'Red Headed Stranger' they didn't think it would do anything at all, and they were pleasantly surprised. Once you start selling records then they will back off and say, 'Let Willie do whatever he wants to do.' But up until that time they're saying, 'He's crazy, he's stupid, he's blowing money, he's ruining his career.' "
An extraordinarily prolific songwriter - he recalls composing over 2,000 songs between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, and has released more than 300 albums - this living legend has probably performed and recorded with a more diverse spectrum of artists than any other entertainer.
From Bono to Bob Dylan, Ray Charles to Santana, Eric Clapton to Julio Iglesias, Willie's worked with them all.
"It's a lot of fun to play music, and it's just natural that I have recorded a lot," he explains. "I just love to do it, and I can do a lot in one day. I like singing with other singers, I like singing with good singers."
And how many country artists are there who can record reggae music with Toots Hibbert and Ziggy Marley, blues with B.B. King, jazz with Wynton Marsalis, and even teaming last year with hip-hop megastar Snoop Dogg on Snoop's catchy, countrified single "My Medicine."
"He wanted me to sing on his song and we wound up in Amsterdam," Willie reports. "It's a good tune. I had a show there and he booked one so he could play there."
Coming up we can expect a new standards compilation, "American Classic" (with help from Norah Jones and Diana Krall), and another chapter in a teaming with jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.
Willie appears in the inspiring new documentary "One Peace at a Time," by Turk Pipkin, screening Friday at 9:30 p.m. at the Celestial Cinema. Filmed in 20 countries on five continents, the film explores the possibility of providing basic needs to every child on earth.
"He's a real good friend of mine," says Willie about the director. "He went around the world talking to various leaders. It's very well done."
Imagine watching k.d. lang singing a mournful, soul-stirring song as Bela Fleck picks on banjo, supported by legendary Police drummer Stewart Copeland, with Malian kora players Mamah Diabate and Andra Kouyate, and Indian guitar virtuoso Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and then Willie K erupts in Hawaiian as actor Tim Robbins appears on screen decrying the dangerous overmedication of young school children. That's just one of the remarkable scenes in the brilliant, meticulously crafted documentary "1 Giant Leap - What About Me," showing on Sunday at 8 p.m. in the McCoy Theater.
Featuring an amazing gathering of artists and consciousness pioneers this U.K. production includes best-selling spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle and celebrated linguist Noam Chomsky, rocker Alanis Morissette, Michael Franti and REM's Michael Stipe, along with Bedouin musicians, Chinese rappers, Gabonese Pygmies and Tuvan throat singers.
The culmination of four years' work, shot in more than 50 locations worldwide, by British musicians Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman, the film fuses an exotic global soundtrack with an exploration of the roots of human suffering and the keys to waking up.
"The whole project is built from a musical perspective," explains co-producer/director Duncan Bridgeman. "What we do, which we think is unique, is mix in wisdom about the human condition in a musical way. Each sound bite is mixed in like a lead vocal would be in a song, so making deep and resonant messages.
"Our whole process is so unique, it's like a treasure trail, one gem leading to the next. When we started we never intended to make a film. We were just making music that we liked and one thing led to another and we now have two films under our belts.
Among the global spots the duo alighted, Maui produced film of Willie K and Led Kaapana's soulful slack key, which opens "1 Giant Leap - What About Me."
"We were on Maui about a week," Duncan explains. "Everywhere we go we seem to be blessed to find incredible talent and welcoming spirits. We were led to Led by our friends and we spent a lovely afternoon with him and Willie K making some delicious music. Led makes a great opening to the movie, and Willie and k.d. singing together is a real treat."
The many musical jewels in the film help convey its life-affirming wisdom while examining our collective insanity - exhibited by our insatiable desires, childhood wounding, assorted addictions and ego-driven fears.
"This is the time for awakening," announces Eckhart Tolle early in the film. "This is the time to wake up out of the madness, because the history of humanity is basically a history of insanity."
" '1 Giant Leap' is based on the idea of Jamie and I trying to get to meet our heroes and include their genius in what we do," Duncan continues. "Jamie read 'The Power of Now' and it was clear that Eckhart would have insights for us. I had no idea of how brilliant and clear he is, and when we got the three-hour interview onto the editing table it was a labor of love to get it to fit into the music and speak so loud. He really is the star of our film."
Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour is probably best known to Western audiences for his collaborations with Peter Gabriel on the album "So," and later with the song "Shaking the Tree." The African superstar is the focus of "Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love," screening Saturday at 9:30 p.m. at the Celestial Cinema.
Several years in the making, this fascinating film follows N'Dour as he releases the Grammy-winning album "Egypt," a lyrical celebration of Senegal's Muslim mystical culture of Sufism, which prompted religious conservatives in his homeland to declare it blasphemous.
A riveting performer with the power to move audiences world-wide, N'Dour even gets Irish fans to quit drinking in a Dublin pub so he can perform.
Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai hails him an "extraordinary talent," Aerosmith's Steven Tyler proclaims him "a genius, a magician, like an angel," and legendary John Lennon producer Jack Douglas affirms: "Steven's right, he is a genius. It's soul music, in absolutely the purest form."
They're talking about musician Michael Masley, the subject of "Art Officially Favored," screening tonight at 10 at the Celestial Cinema. A Bay Area street artist, Masley plays his own version of a 120-string cymbalom, the chromatic hammered dulcimer that produces exquisitely transcendent, celestial tones. Be prepared to lift off.
Finally, check out "Sita Sings the Blues" tonight at 11 at Celestial Cinema. It's got Hindu conservatives freaking. "Please ban the film outright. I am sure (director) Nina Paley IS MAD," blogged one irate Indian. Variety praises it as a "delightfully subversive feminist musical version of the 'Ramayana.' "