In an interview I conducted with him last September I referred to Willie Nile as The Troubadour Of New York City. While it may seem like an archaic word to use for describing a modern day musician as it evokes images of someone in a floppy hat playing a lute and singing verses recounting histories or epic romances. However, there was more to those song smiths of old than that, as they also roamed the country keeping track of events in the realm, which they would recount to their listeners along with their more traditional pieces. In either case the songs helped people to understand the world around them.
I don't know whether Willie Nile owns a floppy hat, but on his forthcoming release, House Of A Thousand Guitars (April 14th/09, on his own River House Records label), Willie Nile proves once again just how adept he is at both elements of the troubadour's art. For whether he's singing about something topical as in "Now That The War Is Over", or simply about living in the world as with "Little Light", Nile's is unerring in his ability in bringing his subject matter to life.
There's something about the combination of his music and the sound of Nile's voice that assures the listener of both his honesty and the depth of his passion for whatever it is he is singing about. Even a song that in another's hands, like the title track "House Of A Thousand Guitars" in which he expresses his respect and admiration for various folk in the music industry both dead and alive, would sound cheaply sentimental at best and cliched at worse, his sincerity is obvious because of the genuineness of his enthusiasm for what he is singing about. Unlike other songs of this type which glorify the dead, this song is a celebration of the music and the pleasure it has brought all of us over the years.
The twelve songs on the disc are divided equally between two sets of musicians, with the harder edged cuts being played by the band he refers to as the Worry Dolls; Andy York (guitar), Brad Albetta (bass), and Rich Pagano (drums), while long time collaborator Frankie Lee (drums), Stuart Smith (guitar), and Stewart Lerman (bass) backed him on the six, more ballad like, tunes. While the band might change dependant on whether Nile is intent on rocking the house or moving a little slower, he doesn't change his straight from the heart approach to the material.
Wearing your heart on your sleeve isn't common practice among popular music singers in this day and age, if it ever has been, but Willie Nile is one of the few who do. Which is why it doesn't matter whether he's leading the Worry Dolls in an anthem like "Give Me Tomorrow" or singing a ballad along the lines of "Love Is A Train", you feel as though there's nothing more important in the world at that moment than what Nile is telling you in his song. This of course compels you to listen to the lyrics of each of his songs, which is when you realize that even if they're not the most important thing in the world they are some of the most meaningful lyrics that you've ever heard.
What impresses me the most about Willie Nile's lyrics on House Of A Thousand Guitars is how he somehow manages to be both poetic and straightforward at the same time. There's nothing convoluted about Nile's songs. Unlike some other writers who attempt to show off their intellectuality by refusing ever to say what they mean directly, and whose material ends up leaving you cold, these songs beat an emotional path directly from Willie's heart to yours. It's not that his material isn't intelligent, for it is, it's just that he's secure enough in his talent that he has no need to prove to anybody his intellectual credibility.
Something that I couldn't help noticing the first time I listened to Nile's music, after about a decade of not hearing anything from him - last summer's DVD release Live From The Streets Of New York - was how well he combined the sensibilities of Irish folk music and rock and roll. Unlike groups like The Pogues who retain the old folk structure and instruments while "punking" up the sound, Nile welds elements of the two styles together to create a sound that's both vital and heartfelt. For while his rock and roll sounds along the lines of the Ramones meet Sun Records, his lyrical style and passion owe more to The Chieftains and County Warwick than Elvis or CBGBs.
Of course on the slower, more ballad oriented songs, the connection to Irish music is even more noticeable, after all Nile is a good Irish boy from Buffalo. However, instead of making an obvious attempt at writing "Irish" tunes, Nile has simply allowed his own heritage to flavour what he writes. The result is pretty much the same as what happens with the rock and roll songs, a wonderful marriage of styles that doesn't have an artificial or cheaply sentimental bone in its body. Unlike the musical equivalent of green plastic hats for St. Patrick's day that you hear in so called Irish pubs, Nile's music is an organic blending of the old and the new that yields astonishing results.
Whether it's a social-political rocker like "Doomsday Dance" with its satirical lyrics celebrating humankind's seemingly insatiable desire for self-destruction ("There'll be a body count/We're goinna watch it rise/the folks at CNN/They won't believe their eyes/We'll do the dead man's twist/This is our last chance/Down at the Doomsday Dance"), or the unsentimental beauty and heartbreak of his memorial to his brother in "Touch Me", Nile continues to create music like few others.
Honesty, integrity, and a sense of the absurd combined with a razor sharp wit unfortunately aren't top forty material so it's unlikely that Willie Nile will ever gain the acclaim or fame that his abilities justify. Thankfully that doesn't seem to be stopping him from continuing to give us his interpretations of what's going on in the world. Like the troubadours of old Willie Nile has both his eyes and heart open to the world, and the ability to turn that into music, and we're better for it.
(Originally posted April 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.