Music Analysis

Rock diva Tracy Nelson’s glorious gospel album turns 50

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1970s soul singer Tracy Nelson (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Just once, the soulful American singer applied her interpretive gifts to an album with a strong gospel feel. Bring Me Home still rings out both musically and spiritually, writes Stephen Saunders.

POPULAR MUSIC divas of the American 1970s are quite a roll-call. Sales-wise the titans include Carole King, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Diana Ross. King’s mega-hit Tapestry just turned 50.

Attention also lingers on names like Joni Mitchell (originally Canada), Carly Simon, Patti Smith, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin (died 1970). Less obvious are names like Tracy Nelson, Barbara Keith, Ann Peebles, Millie Jackson, Candi Staton and Betty Wright (died 2020).

All have been musically active since 2000. So too have Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. When I first saw each perform, in the 1970s, they were more like genre artists. Both would gain wider popularity, while Parton became an astonishing American industry in her own right — batting off medals and statues. And Joplin sparked an academic industry.

Despite Tracy’s large profile with fellow singers and her loyal audiences, her life vocation never made her a household name. In her heyday, there was no “social media” to amplify the strong word-of-mouth. 

On two occasions, she did share Grammy Awards nominations. Her 45-year discography runs to two dozen albums. Early gems cluster in 1969-1976. There are fine moments on albums that followed her 1980-1993 recording hiatus.

Vocal range and technique enabled Tracy to glide around rock, soul, blues, country and gospel. Thus, her best albums create a remarkable anthology of Americana music. In the 1970s, however, that term wasn’t widely used. It’s common now. Among contemporary “Americana” singers, Rhiannon Giddens and Courtney Marie Andrews may be compared with Tracy. They too have voices to die for. 

Tracy’s formative (Wisconsin) influences were rhythm and blues rather than gospel. Her debut album Deep Are The Roots was blues. In San Francisco flower-power days, her Mother Earth blues-rock band shared stages with Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

Decamping to Nashville, Tracy sprang a surprise country music album — featuring her own 'Stay As Sweet As You Are' and an astute reading of 'Stand By Your Man'. For the 1996 compact disc (CD) reissue, music journalist John Morthland’s liner notes applauded this album as a pioneer in the 1960s country-to-rock “rapprochement”. In 1969, rock “dean” Robert Christgau was one who totally got it. He issued one of his rare As.

Come April 1971, Mother Earth released Bring Me HomeRather than storming the charts, this album garnered a B+ from Christgau. With Tracy’s sensual voice treating mindful lyrics, it stands as an unusual and inspirational gospel suite — also as a notable rock album of its era.

On Previews on Apple Music, journalist Greg Prato owns that all the Mother Earth LP records (LPs) were 'somewhat underappreciated'. This LP reappeared as a CD in 2005. Both the LP and CD are still traded. These days, the album tracks are also downloadable from YouTube, Apple or Spotify.

Gospel is sometimes imagined as black American music. Indeed, for black singers, church music is a well-trodden pathway into popular music. But gospel music has its white origins. And it is widely adopted by white singers.

Contemporary stars like Kanye West and Kirk Franklin have made gospel hits. During the 1970s too, America also enjoyed highly commercial gospel, from Elvis, Aretha and others. Christian pop acts also sold well.

But Tracy lacked the market clout of a national star. Her reputation was soulful rather than religious. Furthermore, her approach here isn’t that of an evangelist, beaming out to the worshipful. She comes to revere the music itself. Her backup chorus, dubbed the Earthettes, burnishes love songs and spirituals alike. The effect is more like a soundtrack for soul-searching.

The singer:

"Can’t explain these nights I’ve spent, waiting for daylight."

Yet she must:

"Get up and make my life shine."  

Tracy could pick the rising composers. She recorded a John Hiatt song before he ever did. Songsmith Eric Kaz, also favoured by Raitt and Ronstadt, furnishes four tunes here. Starting with 'Temptation Took Control Of Me And I Fell'.

Kaz writes:

‘I cried out in desperation.’

And that’s how Tracy vocalises it.

When his next tune'There Is No End' finds quieter space, she too shifts a gear:

"There is no end, life just begins again."

Compared with King or Mitchell, Tracy wrote sparsely. Unusually, her 1996 album Move On includes four of her own tunes. Her best compositions make every word count. The covers for her 'Down So Low' include Ronstadt and Cyndi Lauper.

Here, on 'Soul Of Sadness', Tracy takes piano — her lines gel, as gracefully as any sonnet:

"The times we were together our souls were intertwined.

But the sweet desire that held us close was not the tie that binds.

And in the soul of sadness a joy that’s close to pain.

It keeps me safe and unafraid to fall in love again."

Also beautifully written is the title track from Bring me Home, somehow fetched from a little-known bluesman.

This rousing devotional brings the Earthettes into full play:

"Praise shall be given and all your troubles laid to rest."

Side two of this LP opens to Kaz’s 'Tonight The Sky’s About to Cry'. Where daylight seems too far away.

In Tracy’s silvery and sepulchral phrasing, that long wait is serious stuff:

"When I grow too tired to open up my eyes,

I swear I see sunlight coming through the midnight skies."

Her foil for 'Tonight the Sky...'  is 'Seven Bridges Road'. Among dozens of covers for Steve Young’s signature song, she was quick off the mark.

She lights up Young’s notable image of running 'beneath warm stars' through 'moonlight and moss' and tweaks other lyrics to suit her purposes:

"I’ve loved you in a tame way and I can love you wild.

Sometimes there is a part of me that could turn away and go."

Lifting the ensemble is dobro [resonator guitar] doyen Ben Keith, who bends his trademark notes around the vocals. 

Two spirituals round off the album. The newly-famous James Taylor contributes his march-to-glory 'Lo And Behold'. Kaz’s 'Deliver Me' is stern but uplifting.

In the final fade, the chorus trades “deliver me”, back and forth with the singer:

"A hundred swollen voices cry, revival’s in the air.

A prayer book lingers in my hand, I look but I don’t see.

Deliver me, deliver me."

At the time, Tracy had just switched labels, joining heavy-hitter Mo Ostin at well-regarded Reprise Records. At least they captured this music — they didn’t know how to shift it.

And Tracy never attempted a sequel. Three labels and five years later, she made her “blue-eyed soul” album, Time Is On My Side. Her title track blitzes the soul standard. 

Across Bring Me Home, Tracy’s Earthettes and five Mother Earth dudes fashioned an exhilarating sound. The LP cover photo puts her out front of the quintet, in dimming orange light under a leafy tree. It bears the whimsical sign, 'Trees make money’.

In the "Me" Decade of the 1970s, only a singer of commanding integrity and intensity could have got this infidel anywhere near a gospel wavelength.

Her album’s most generous gift is not religion as such, but what you might call a soul massage. Even now, each song still comes easily to my lips.

Stephen Saunders is a former public servant, consultant and Canberra Times reviewer.

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