“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 (is that redundant?) 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 (“Stramger 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 11 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.
Nelson’s listening education began in the early 1960s when, while growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, she immersed herself in the R&B she heard beamed into her bedroom from Nashville’s WLAC-AM. “It was like hearing music from Mars,” she recalls of the alien sounds that stirred her so. As an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin, she combined her musical passions singing blues and folk at coffeehouses and R&B at frat parties as one of three singers fronting a band (including keyboardist Ben Sidran) called the Fabulous Imitations. 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 on Prestige Records.
A short time later, Tracy moved to San Francisco and, in the midst of that era’s psychedelic explosion, formed Mother Earth, a group that was named after the fatalistic Memphis Slim song (which she sang at his 1988 funeral). In 1968 the band recorded its first album, which included Nelson’s own composition “Down So Low.” It became her signature song, called by Esquire magazine “one of the five saddest songs ever written.” It has been regularly covered by great women singers through the years, including Etta James, Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur and, in 2010, Cyndi Lauper, who chose it for her own Grammy-nominated blues album.
In 1969, the second Mother Earth album, Make a Joyful Noise, was recorded in Nashville, 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 to co-produce (with Pete Drake). After six Mother Earth albums for Mercury 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 that Tracy reprised on her 2003 album, Live From Cell Block D.
The highlight of Nelson’s tenure with Rounder Records throughout the 1990s was surely Sing It!, the brilliant, big-selling 1998 album starring Nelson, swamp blues/rocker Marcia Ball and soul queen Irma Thomas. And drawing from the recent albums she did with Memphis International, Nelson gave fans worldwide the chance to hear her live (in the great jailhouse album tradition of Johnny Cash and B.B. King) when she released Live From Cell Block D, recorded at the West Tennessee Detention Center in Mason, Tennessee. It was a profound experience for her and reinforced “the value of sharing music in every venue imaginable.”
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. She is a soul survivor