100 Essential Albums: #93 — Teatro by Willie Nelson 
I’ll always love you in my own peculiar way.
From the opening note of the first song on Willie Nelson’s vastly underappreciated 1998 album, Teatro, we realize we’re in for something astoundingly different.
Sometimes, words aren’t necessary. Sometimes, unexpected elements and disparate forces meld together and magic appears. Sometimes, music says it all. That’s precisely what happens in the two-minute instrumental intro of Track #1, “Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour? (Where Are You, My Love?)” which then leads straight into Track #2, “I Never Cared for You.”
These increasingly complex drum heavy ballads perfectly set the tone for what must be considered as the most peculiar album of Nelson’s prolific career, which includes several atypical arrangements and unconventional tempos of old Nelson recordings which had been forgotten. The end result is a startling collection of pleasant new surprises.
Watch and listen to the album’s opening song(s) here:
Country-western music may be associated with traditional bedrock values, but it’s also always had a healthy strain of rebellion. From Hank Williams to Johnny Cash, and from the Outlaws to the Dixie Chicks, country-western music has displayed a bountiful array of non-conformists. For a half-century, Willie Nelson has been the movement’s quintessential rebel.
Nelson’s first hit as a songwriter, “Crazy,” composed for Patsy Cline in 1961, became one of the most covered ballads in pop music history. Following a string of mostly unsuccessful solo albums during the 1960’s when Nelson played things straight and smooth, he then broke virtually every rule in country music by growing his hair long, donning hippie-like clothes, and embracing the counterculture of rebellion. He became the central figure in the evolution of an entirely new popular subgenre which became known as — “Outlaw Country.” Millions of music fans, country and non-country alike, loved the new sound and emulated the new look. Intentional or not, Nelson had successfully tapped into the collective mindset of real people from the great American heartland. His influence upon other musicians was incalculable.
Then, approaching his pinnacle of popularity as a country music icon, Nelson shocked everyone by recording and releasing what became the surprising best-selling album of his career, Stardust, a collection of classic American standards. Next, he appeared in several hit movies, most notably The Electric Horseman and Honeysuckle Rose. After that, Nelson willingly became an activist, advancing a number of progressive political causes, including calls for marijuana reform and drawing attention to the economic plight of American farmers. He was a co-founder of FARM-AID, an annual music festival which has raised millions of dollars for small farmers ruined by corporate agribusiness.
Nelson also endured his share of setbacks. He divorced three times. He was busted for marijuana possession on multiple occasions. He even owed the IRS a whopping $17 million in back taxes at one point. Nelson worked off his debt by recording and releasing the 1992 album, The IRS Tapes: Who Will Buy My Memories?
By the summer of 1998, when Nelson stepped into an abandoned movie theater in Oxnard, California planning to record what would become his 45th studio album, he had nothing much to prove other than he could still write and create wonderful music. Country-music and pop culture had certainly changed in the previous 25 years since Nelson fronted the Outlaws. Typical of Nelson’s departure from conventional expectation, he once again pulled off one of the most spectacular surprises of his musical career. While Garth Brooks topped the country charts and packed football stadiums with thrilling shows filled with flair and flamboyance, Nelson quietly moved in the opposite direction, creating a collection of 14 songs unlike anything heard before in country music.
Most of the songs on Teatro were written by Nelson during the 1960’s. They’d previously appeared on albums that didn’t sell many copies. The songs were mostly forgotten.
Consider this title track from Nelson’s 1969 album, My Own Peculiar Way. Listen to the original recording here:
Nearly 30 years later, Nelson re-recorded the same song which appears on Teatro. Here’s the updated version:
Much of the credit for Teatro’s unique style and unusual sound goes to record producer Daniel Lanois. Nelson was in ideal hands under Lanois’ musical direction. Lanois had previously produced three “Album of the Year” Grammy Award winners. He produced albums for a wide variety of iconic musicians — including Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, among others. Lenois also collaborated closely with Brian Eno on multiple albums recorded by U2, including the bombshell masterpiece, The Joshua Tree. Indeed, Teatro is every bit as much a Lanois album as a Willie Nelson one.
The album also belongs largely to country legend Emmylou Harris, who vocally backs up Nelson on many of the album’s best songs. Harris’ backing vocals are absolutely divine, softening the rough edges off Nelson’s all-too-familiar twang. The harmonies between Nelson and Harris are marvelous.
Consider this track, “The Maker,” a song originally written by Lanois released in 1989. Here’s the collaborative re-make:
Teatro received mostly positive reviews from critics. However, the album didn’t sell particularly well, nor did it produce any familiar hit singles. Nelson’s traditional audience likely had trouble digesting such a drastic departure from the usual easy sing-a-longs which comprise much of the Willie Nelson canon. And despite Lanois’ bold musical direction, this album remains virtually unknown to contemporary audiences. However, much like Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, this album that didn’t fare so well when released is gaining increasing appreciation upon further reflection. I predict it will someday be looked upon as perhaps Nelson’s finest work.
Teatro is that rare studio album which can be played repeatedly during various chapters during our own lives. Each time, we get something new out of it. Each time, it gets better. Each time, it gets better and better, in its own peculiar way.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Previous selections include:
#97: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)
#96: The Doors — by The Doors (1967)
#95: Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)