Alan Rudolph's "Songwriter" and Robert M. Young's "One-Trick Pony" are two of the best movies yet about the modern pop music industry. Rudolph's freewheeling, anarchic sendup of the Nashville country establishment (from a Bud Schrake script) stars Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Lesley Ann Warren and Rip Torn; Young's coolly understated skewering of the New York rock scene (from a Paul Simon script) stars Simon, Torn, Lou Reed and Blair Brown.
Focusing on Nelson and Simon, respectively, the films tellingly capture the family and career dilemmas that plague artists in the merciless pop marketplace. However, neither film received wide theatrical release. It's only now that the films are available for VCRs that the public has the chance to recognize them for the gems they are.
Furthermore, the sound track album for "Songwriter" (Columbia, FC 39531) is one of the best country albums of recent vintage -- and easily the best recorded work Kristofferson has done in a dozen years. Unlike most pop sound tracks, which usually have no more than a tangential relationship to the movie's subject, these songs by Nelson and Kristofferson crystallize the central themes of "Songwriter".
A lot of good music from the movie is left off the sound track, but these 11 new songs are the cream. Each side begins with a duet written by Kristofferson; Nelson follows with five of his own tunes on Side 1, and Kristofferson adds four of his on Side 2.
The villains of the movie are a sleazy concert promoter (Torn) and a crooked publishing executive (Richard Sarafin). Of the thousands of songs that have attacked music execs, none is more vicious or effective than Nelson's "Write Your Own Songs." In his typically dry, low-key voice, he sweetly suggests where the big shots can stick their contracts, and, he invites them to go and write their own songs.
"Who'll Buy My Memories" is a thoughtful reflection on the ironies of turning personal heartbreaks into songs for a living. "Songwriter" is a sad, gorgeous ode to struggling artists. In a similar vein, "Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Easy" offers encouragement to the long-suffering wives of musicians. "Good Times" is a slow meditation on the past that seizes on small moments of pleasure.
These last four songs are all delivered with the slow, sparse arrangements Nelson favors these days. His deep-grained voice holds each syllable until it has acquired a resonant hum. His all-star band plays with admirable restraint, and producer Booker T. Jones adds just enough organ to reinforce the resonance.
On the other side, Jones uses much thicker arrangements to compensate for Kristofferson's vocal liabilities. Wrapping the songs in slide guitar, organ, phased guitar and echoed harmony vocals, Jones achieves a dense atmospheric sound that casts an eerie spell. Recognizing that Kristofferson is a much better actor than singer, Jones focuses on the dramatic qualities of his voice with good results.
Kristofferson responds with his best song writing in years. He draws on the old metaphor of the country music rebel as an outlaw to recast the movie's themes into two songs about fugitives on the run: "Crossing the Border" and "Under the Gun." They feature ghostly vocals and unnerving slide guitar that evoke both the freedom and fear that go with being an outsider.
Billy Swan joins him for a duet vocal on the witty heartbreak song, "Down to Her Socks." Kristofferson ends the album with a sombre "The Final Attraction," a semi-autobiographical look at an aging singer-songwriter who somehow rouses himself from all his defeats to connect with his audience one more time.
The prolific Nelson has released no fewer than 18 albums since 1981. If "Songwriter" and this year's "Me and Paul" (Columbia FC 40008) are two of the best, "Highwayman" (Columbia FC 40056) may well be the worst.
This misconceived concept album teams Nelson and Kristofferson with Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings on 10 songs vaguely connected to the outlaw myth.
Nelson and Cash are the only voices on every song, and Cash's raspy voice predominates. Both need a lot of room to sing, but here they are crowded by too many voices and too many guitars. Nor has anyone come up with an original approach to such well-worn songs as Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train" or Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," which are paired for no reason. The whole project sounds as if it were dashed off in a free afternoon.
Nelson has also released two more duet albums with aging country greats. He joins Nova Scotia's Hank Snow on "Brand on My Heart" (Columbia PC 39977) for remakes of Snow's venerable hits from the '50s plus some curiously chosen standards. It doesn't work, though, for Snow's overly ornate delivery, full of quivers and nasal embellishments, constantly clashes with Nelson's more restrained approach.
Much better is "Funny How Time Slips Away" (Columbia PC 39484), which teams Nelson with Faron Young. Young was one of the first singers to record Nelson's songs. Nelson repays the favor 24 years later with an affectionate reunion that revives the pleasures of Nashville's pre-crossover honky tonk era.
Side 1 features six Nelson compositions from the early '60s, including Young's hits, "Hello Walls" and "Three Days." Side 2 includes remakes of Young's earlier hits from the '50s, including "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young" and "Sweet Dreams." Young's saloon confessions take on a new stature in the crisp arrangements that feature Buddy Emmons' steel guitar, Johnny Gimble's fiddle and Nelson's supple voice.