One of rock’s most gifted songwriters, Willie Nile, reaps the rewards of patience.
By Steve Houk
Willie Nile and his band will play at Jammin Java Saturday June 6th. (Photo courtesy Willie Nile)
You might not know Willie Nile‘s music, but until you do, it’s your loss. If it was up to some of the most gifted musicians on the planet, as well as the legion of fans he’s garnered over his 30 plus years in the business, everyone would know Nile’s name.
“From Richard Thompson to Bruce Springsteen to Bono and Lucinda Williams, they’ve all been so supportive,” Nile told me from New York recently. “Lucinda told me when she heard ‘On The Road to Cavalry’ that it was the most beautiful song she’d ever heard. And I’ve been to Ireland the past two winters, and both times after sound check, I’d go up to the dressing room and there’s this wooden gift box with two bottles of champagne and five to six bottles of Guinness and a note, and you open it up and it says, ‘Welcome to Dublin, Love, U2.’ That’s from Bono. I just pinch myself. So as up and down a ride as it’s been, it’s more satisfying than you can imagine, because of the respect I’ve gotten, and the joy I’m having making the music.”
Up and down is right, but respect and joy are what surrounds Nile these days. At 66, the supremely talented Nile is one of those musicians whose career has had enough gaps in it that he’s almost slipped through them himself: a fairy tale start, followed by a long reclusion from the music business altogether, and then a masterful 25 year awakening, turning him into one of music’s most unheralded songwriting geniuses.
For Nile, it’s all about the songs, and album for album, from his self-titled debut in 1980 to his latest gem ‘If I Was A River’ released last year, his sublime tunes are what separates him from the rest of the pack. Yes, he and his band can rock the house like nobody’s business, in the studio and especially live, but it’s the evocative and stunning tapestries of life that Nile paints with his words that place him in very rare company.
“When I write, I just write what comes to me,” Nile said. “Whether it’s something political, or I see something that touches my heart, love or loss, or someone else’s sorrow or loneliness, I watch people all the time looking for things that inspire me. What’s great about rock-n-roll is you can write about anything. There’s no limit.”
Nile just might have become one of those aforementioned household names if things had gone a bit differently. An unexpected gig opening up for one of rock music’s most famous bands right after his first album dropped gave him the leg up that most musicians only dream about.
“I toured with the Who in 1980, after my first record,” Nile said. “When they told me at the record company, ‘Oh, Pete Townsend loves your record,’ I just thought to myself, ‘yeah, sure he does, this is some kinda bullshit that the record company is throwing.’ So go forward, it’s the last show of my first tour at the Roxy in L.A., and after the show, Bill Curbishley and a number of Who people came back. They really liked the show and asked me on the spot if I wanted to open across the U.S. for The Who. It was the dream of a lifetime and we had the time of our lives. I was playing in a few hundred seat clubs, next thing you know I’m in front of 20,000 people.”
With a huge break like that, you’d think it’d be pretty smooth sailing to the next level. But for Nile, after two stellar early records and the Who warm-up slot, he disappeared from view for a half dozen years just as his star was about to burst open. He spent that time largely letting family take a front seat. After settling down with his family in Buffalo, Nile kept writing music, but stayed away from performing throughout much of the ’80s. It was late in the decade when a unique opportunity presented itself, and the pull of his chosen gifts beckoned Nile back into a life of music.
“I got a call from a promoter in Norway saying, ‘I thought you were dead,’ Nile said. “I had never been to Europe, which is really a shame; had I gone to Europe back in the beginning, things would have been quite a bit different. But I went to play a children’s cancer hospital benefit in the far north of Norway, and I ended up going there like six, seven years in a row. I also went to this benefit for this writer, the godfather of all the music critics in Norway. I did like a 25 minute set. I took the videotape of that performance to a buddy of mine, a producer at Columbia, and he loved it so much he signed me on the strength of that. So that got me going again.”
The wait was worth it, Nile was back in business, and over the next decade he would release two more records, “Places I’ve Never Been” in 1991 (featuring Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III and Roger McGuinn on backup vocals) and eight years later, “Beautiful Wreck Of The World,” which would be his first self-released record. That record changed the course of his career for the better as it freed him of the constraints of record companies and their incessant meddling. A whirling flurry of creativity and productivity would follow, and finally, his name would become synonymous around the world for both kick-ass rock and roll and thoughtful songwriting.
It’s been a long road to where Nile is today, and if it weren’t for a couple of important decisions he felt he needed to make, he might be in that upper echelon of rock star popularity. But make no mistake about it, Nile’s songwriting chops and live performances are as good as anyone out there right now, and he’s very pleased with where things are in his life today.
“Everybody’s got different paths, and [mine’s] been much easier on my family,” said Nile. But I really treasure all the stuff that I have learned. I wouldn’t trade it for the world at this point. The people come out and give me a lot of love, so it’s very rewarding. I consider myself very lucky.”
Willie Nile and his band perform June 6th at Jammin Java, 227 Maple Ave E, Vienna, VA 22180. Tickets are available here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.