JACKI LYDEN, host:
Through a 40-year career that's reached from the Fillmore scene of the late 1960s in San Francisco to Nashville's top studios, Tracy Nelson has earned a reputation as a powerful singer with a stunning voice. Nelson had been working on a new album this summer until a fire badly damaged her home and her studio.
But as Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN reports, the music, like the artist herself, proved to be a survivor.
CRAIG HAVIGHURST: No surprise for a woman who's most famous band was called Mother Earth, but Tracy Nelson lives in the country. Forty minutes from downtown Nashville, 10 miles off the freeway at a bend in the road stands the farmhouse that she's shared for a decade with her companion, recording engineer Mike Dysinger. It should be a bucolic sight, but the 100-year-old structure is scorched inside, and the front porch is jammed with blackened furniture and personal belongings. Nelson is in the front yard, rescuing an old watercolor whose frame has shattered.
Ms. TRACY NELSON (Singer): And I dont know anything about it. My mother never knew who the artist was, just weve always had that painting.
HAVIGHURST: She says the fire started about 10:00 on a Saturday night and spread quickly.
Ms. NELSON: I smelled smoke upstairs and Mike was yelling and the smoke alarm was kind of going eeh eeh eeh, you know, it was being wimpy. And by the time I came out the bedroom door, the smoke was so thick that it was just - we just didn't have much time except to just get out and get as many animals out as we could and open the doors and hope the rest of them would figure it out, and most of them did.
HAVIGHURST: Two of Nelson's nine dogs did not make it. She also lost a family heirloom piano and a number of photos and posters from her 1960s heyday. However, thanks to some meticulous work by the local volunteer fire department, Dysinger's in-home studio survived. And with it the new 95 percent complete Tracy Nelson album, one she'd already decided to call "Victim of the Blues."
(Soundbite of song, "Victim of the Blues")
Ms. NELSON: (Singing) Too sad to worry. Too mean to cry. Too slow to hurry. Too good to lie. My man, he left me, he done say goodbye. Too sick to stay here. Too well to die. People think I'm crazy. I'm just a victim of the blues.
HAVIGHURST: This was no woe-is-me title. Tracy Nelson means only to say that for her many forays into rock, soul and country, the blues has held sway over her entire life in music.
Ms. NELSON: This is my 24th or 25th record. I'm at the point in my career and in my life when I just want to do stuff I haven't done before. And really straight, traditional blues I hadn't done in 40 years. And there were so many old songs that I'd always wanted to do, so I just decided to do it.
HAVIGHURST: That archaic, pre-World War II sound first captivated her as a teenager in Madison, Wisconsin. She made it her own on her 1965 debut.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. NELSON: (Singing) I feel my legs a-jumping, my heart a-thumping, I'm on my P's and Q's. I feel my legs jumping. Ain't got no time to lose. Now I'm superstitious trying to overcome these blues.
HAVIGHURST: Nelson electrified her sound after she moved to San Francisco and formed Mother Earth.
(Soundbite of song, "Mother Earth")
Ms. NELSON: (Singing) Well, you can have me all the time and you can never come my way. But Mother Earth is waiting for you. There's a debt you've got to pay. I don't care how rich you are. I don't care what you earn. I don't care what you earn. Well, when it all comes down, you've got to go, you've got to go back to Mother Earth. Whoa - Mother Earth.
HAVIGHURST: In a scene dominated by the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, some thought Nelson's voice was at least as strong as that of her contemporary, Janis Joplin, even if Nelson never matched her success.
Ms. NELSON: Every label I signed with, with the possible exception of MCA, thought they were getting the next Janis or something equivalent. And I don't think I, you know, misrepresented myself, but they just assumed that I would fall into whatever, you know, slot they wanted to put me in. And I didn't. And I wouldn't. And to this day, you know, I will not take direction where the kind of music that I do is involved - or really in anything else.
HAVIGHURST: Nelson's very personal sense of direction then took her to Nashville in 1969, where she made a country album, with Elvis Presley's original rhythm section and Music Row's best session players.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. NELSON: (Singing) It's time for me to go, even though I love you so. I couldn't stay here any longer 'cause I know I've had my share. You lie here sleeping unaware and I'm sure you wouldnt care if you knew what I am thinking, still I offer up this prayer. Stay as sweet as you are now. It's very easy if you cry. You have to want to learn how. Just stay as sweet as you are now.
Ms. NELSON: The consistent criticism that I've gotten of all my records although I take it as praise is that it's just all over the place. I do a little country music. And a little individual artist, writer stuff. And a little bit of jazz. And, you know, a lot of blues, and a lot of R&B. You know, there's no one thing, no one slot that any of it fits into. So, and that, of course, works against you.
HAVIGHURST: In the 1990s Nelson found a home for her eclectic tastes on Rounder Records, including an album-length collaboration with Marcia Ball and R&B legend Irma Thomas.
Ms. IRMA THOMAS (Singer): We've been what you call mutual admirers of each other's talent for a long time.
HAVIGHURST: Irma Thomas, an early idol of Nelson's, says they first met in the 1970s but that she didn't get the chance to truly take in the full impact of Nelsons live performance until they toured together some two decades later.
Ms. THOMAS: And I had an opportunity to sit back and just listen to her sing, and I was very, truly appreciative of her voice, because she has a magnificent voice. She can truly sell a song. And she was much younger then, so I can imagine with that voice and the maturity that she has grown into vocally as well as mentally, those songs got to be just over the top.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. NELSON: (Singing) (Unintelligible). Calling on my daughter. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.
HAVIGHURST: Thomas hasn't heard the new record; few people have. And in the wake of the fire, the CD probably won't be released until this winter. But Nelson says her pride in the new music and the outpouring of support from her friends and fans have relit a fire inside of her.
Ms. NELSON: Made me realize that I need to go out and play more, because I've gotten pretty lazy about it and, you know, the response from people who, you know, like what I do has just been so extraordinary. I need to kind of repay that in some way, so I'm going to have to get back on the road.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NELSON: I may have to get back on the road to pay for some of this anyway. But I just really had not properly respected the people out there who really care about what I do. And so I'm going to have to do something about that.
HAVIGHURST: If Tracy Nelson's career is any guide, those who do get to hear her sing will pay that respect back in full.
For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.
(Soundbite of music)
LYDEN: To hear an unreleased track of Tracy Nelson's upcoming album, visit nprmusic.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.