I’ve wanted to see vocalist extraordinaire Tracy Nelson sing since I was a college freshman, and I came close. Having bought tickets to see her perform with her group Mother Earth in Boston, I waited patiently in the theater for her to take the stage. Some time after the appointed hour, Tracy came out to announce that the band’s instruments hadn’t made it from San Francisco. I was incredibly disappointed, as I have had time to recall over the decades since then. Seeing her perform live became a bucket list item for me.
I finally got a chance to see Tracy at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis on January 18, a week ago this past Thursday. I caught Tracy in mid-flight in the photo at right that I snapped from our table. The show was worth waiting for. Tracy was backed by an excellent three-piece band (the Bel-Airs) that opened for her. The two brothers at the heart of the band reminded me of the Louvin Brothers, but they seemed to get along.
Tracy has fashioned herself as a blues singer, though she is equally adept in rock, country, soul, rhythm and blues, and gospel. I can’t believe her voice was ever more powerful or expressive than it is now. Sitting about six feet from her, I found the effect an emotional experience. She is something like a force of nature
The Dakota gave this brief summary of her background:
Nelson’s 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. 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. 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). Mother Earth the group, true to its origin more grounded than freaky, was nonetheless a major attraction at the Fillmore, where they shared stages with Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon.
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 hit duet with Willie Nelson. She continues to tour and record, making music that is as deeply felt as anything she has recorded in her exceptional career; she is a soul survivor.
Deep Are the Roots has long been out of print, but the whole thing has been uploaded to YouTube, as has one of Mother Earth’s Fillmore shows.
One of Tracy’s idols is the New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas. Together with Marcia Ball, Tracy recorded the Grammy-nominated collection Sing It! (1998) with Irma Thomas as a sort of dream come true. With Mother Earth long before that Tracy took the Irma Thomas ballad “Ruler of My Heart” (written by the great Allen Toussaint) and turned it into something like a personal anthem. This is from the Mother Earth album Satisfied.
My favorite Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth album is the gospel flavored Bring Me Home. It’s hard to pick a single highlight from that album. Just to change the tempo up a little bit, let’s go with the Eric Kaz number “Temptation Took Control of Me And I Fell.” There is a life lesson in there as well.
Moving into the current century, Tracy recorded Live From Cell Block D (2003). The video below gives Tracy rescuing the old Bessie Smith song “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair” from the archives. Bessie Smith lives! When we saw her at the Dakota, Tracy introduced the song as a study in personal responsibility.
Back in the days of her work with Mother Earth Tracy cut a country album in Nashville with the town’s great session musicians. My favorite cut on the expanded compact disc version of the album and one of my favorite of her recordings, period, is the Hank Williams classic “You Win Again.” It was originally released on the long out of print Mother Earth album Make a Joyful Noise.
Here is a terrific 2013 interview with Tracy. If you get a chance to see her, I hope you won’t miss it. She is special.