Tracy Nelson has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She celebrated her birthday on Thursday and I wanted to take the occasion to draw attention to her work.
I first heard Tracy as the founder and vocalist of the San Francisco- and Memphis-based group Mother Earth in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her signature song, “Down So Low,” dates from her time with the group. Thanks to compact discs, the Mother Earth catalogue has been restored to print in its entirety. Bring Me Home and Best of Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth provide a good overview of her accomplishments with the group.
Tracy started out singing folk, blues, and gospel as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. The long out of print Deep are the Roots documented her original interests. She was accompanied by the prominent blues harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite on the album, and one of my college friends wore out the grooves listening to it. I haven’t listened to the album since college, but I can still hear Tracy’s version of “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well” in my head forty years later.
Tracy went solo in the mid-70’s. Her 1974 duet with Willie Nelson (“After the Fire is Gone,” included on Tracy Nelson) had some chart success and was even nominated for a Grammy (you can see a video of Tracy performing the song with Willie Nelson here). However, Tracy has never had the popular success she deserves. She is a vocalist extraordinaire. The lady has pipes.
All of her solo material is worth checking out. Among her most recent recordings are Live From Cell Block D, with a set steeped in both country and blues, and You’ll Never Be a Stranger at My Door, in which she revisits her country favorites. Last year’s Victim of the Blues brings her full circle.
It took a while for Tracy’s work to show up on YouTube, but she has finally turned up in some satisfying videos. Tracy has a natural affinity for the blues, which is where she came in. Her performance of “Walk Away” (video below), from a 1987 installment of the old Lonesome Pine Specials, decries “a three-way love affair,” yet it represents a marriage made in heaven. It’s a song Tracy has recorded a couple of times, both times to great effect, though I don’t think it has ever sounded better than this.