Tracy Nelson is checking in from her Tennessee home after issuing her first album in 10 years, Life Don’t Miss Nobody. Released in June, the LP finds the legendary roots singer embracing a reimagined batch of songs by Allen Toussaint, Hank Williams, Ma Rainey and other luminaries. It also harkens back to her guitarpicking coffeehouse days in Wisconsin and her experience as a San Francisco transplant in the blues-rock ensemble Mother Earth.
“I had a list on my laptop with about 50 or 60 songs,” Nelson says. “When it came time to put together the final grouping, I drew from that. They’re songs that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.”
Life Don’t Miss Nobody, which opens with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s swinging rendition of the spirit-conjuring “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” collects 10 covers, including two renditions of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”—a fullband delivery and a unique solo track, with Nelson plucking a 12-string guitar for the first time since her 1964 Prestige Records debut, Deep Are the Roots. Adding to the specialty of the set is the title track—the album’s heartfelt centerpiece and the only tune written by Nelson, who composed the number with her partner, Mike Dysinger.
The choice to include two takes on “Hard Times” was a long time coming. And, much like the veteran musician’s seasoned career, it took more than one push to deliver. “I had never heard that song until a few years ago,” Nelson recalls. “I did a show in San Francisco with Jim Pugh and a bunch of other people. It was a ton of acts, kind of a review. And at the end, he had us all go out. He said, ‘OK, we’re all gonna do ‘Hard Times,’ and I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You know ‘Hard Times.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ But they started the song, and he pointed at me. So Aireene Espiritu, a wonderful artist, stood next to me and shouted the verse in my ear. I was so taken with the song, and then I went back and listened to the Stephen Foster version; it struck me as weird that Stephen Foster wrote this extremely profound, socially aware song. It just slayed me. So I guess that’s stayed at the top of the list.”
For her solo rendition, Nelson recalls, “I wanted to concentrate on my vocals in the studio, and then I was going to overdub the 12-string guitar. But my style of picking, which is from my folk days, just didn’t fit the track. So I played with a flat pick and strummed. But my mate, Mike, who co-wrote the title tune, suggested that I do my own acoustic version where it was just me and the guitar.”
Elsewhere, Nelson taps various old friends, including harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael, whose vibrating breath livens up two tracks—the Sonny Boy Williamson original “There Is Always One More Time” and Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin’.” “I ran into Mickey Raphael when they were cutting a Willie [Nelson] track in the studio across from the building where we were recording. And he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, we’ll play on it.’ They both played for free. Willie said he was delighted to do it so that was just mindblowing, and it was so much fun to sing with Willie again.” (Tracy Nelson shared a duet with the Red Headed Stranger on the 1974 track “After the Fire Is Gone,” which reached No. 17 on the country charts.)
Additional guests appear across the tracklist, most of whom have been orbiting Nelson’s sphere for years. “When I was a young folkie playing my little guitar in clubs and I started working with a band, I was pulling shifts at a record store in Madison, Wis.,” she says. “This girl from Louisiana came in and said, ‘Do you have any Irma Thomas records?’ And I said, ‘No, who’s Irma Thomas?’ She said, ‘Oh,’ and she went off on how great she was and ordered a record. But before I let her know the record was in, I took it home and listened to it. I ordered her a fresh copy because I was gonna keep that one. I was just so taken with Irma’s voice, style and the songs she picked.”
Nelson admits that Thomas has remained an important part of her musical life in other ways as well. “I imitated her; I did a million of her songs. I didn’t know until we got together in New Orleans to do ‘I Did My Part’ that she had recorded ‘There’s Always One More Time,’” she says, noting that the aforementioned selection and her take on Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Fancy Man” both also feature Marcia Ball’s vocals. The songs serve as another long-awaited reunion— the trio of leading ladies previously turned out an album together in 1998, Sing It!
While the new album pays homage to Nelson’s six-decade long career, she’s quick to note, “I’m pleased it’s being received well because I didn’t stay in any box. And listeners need to have that experience too. Records don’t have to be all one sound, feel, type. When we were coming up in the late-‘60s, early ‘70s, there were major radio entities that played everything, not just this or that—just whatever struck their fancy. And that’s what we did with this record. I had no idea if it was gonna hang together, but each one of these songs is one that I really wanted to do. So I hope listeners will embrace that idea of not being too linear and unilateral.” She then pauses and adds with a laugh, “Wow, those are two words I don’t use often.”