It was an interesting day in Milwaukee on Aug. 14 because there was a unique opportunity, with a little bit of effort, for country music fans to see one of the most recognizable figures in the genre and a rising star. I'm talking of course about country legend Willie Nelson and Milwaukee favorite and WAMI 2014 singer-songwriter of the year Nora Collins, who both played respective shows last night. Collins performed at the Milwaukee County Zoo as part of the Zoo a la Carte series and Nelson performed at the Northern Lights Theater downtown Milwaukee. Both musicians perform on Martin guitars.
Willie Nelson sold out both of the shows he performed in Milwaukee without effort. The demand for Nelson, now 81 years young, seemingly never wanes. He's one of the figures in country music who has always played by his own rules and is respected for doing just that. While legend is a title that one might be quick to adorn Nelson with, it hardly defines him as a whole. Nelson recently returned to songwriting with his new album "Band Of Brothers," and continues to redefine himself and his legacy.
Nelson opened up the Aug. 14 show with his classic "Whiskey River," and after jamming it out with his band moved on to "Beer For My Horses," a song he recorded with Toby Keith that was released back in 2003. Nelson of course was joined onstage by his trusted Martin N-20 guitar he named Trigger after Roy Rogers' horse. Weathered, autographed, well loved, and a bit broken in all the right places, Trigger is about as iconic as guitars get in country music. Nelson paid tribute to Waylon Jennings in his third song of the night, "Good Hearted Woman."
Nelson became famous in an era of country music that focused on radio, honky tonks and the Grand Ole Opry. The available avenues for up and coming musicians were limited. In perspective, however, the number of musicians looking for record deals was also limited. Nelson recorded his first single in 1956 and in less than 10 years became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. In 1969 Nelson acquired Trigger and the Martin guitar has been with him ever since. While the new era of country music still has radio, honky tonks and the Grand Ole Opry, musicians these days like Nora Collins become well known through YouTube, Facebook, ReverbNation and self-publishing. The landscape for new music discovery has never been more wide open, and the tools for self promotion have never been more powerful.
In the first of three sets of music that Nora Collins performed across town at the Milwaukee Zoo, just a few hours before Nelson took the stage downtown, the rising country star featured some of the best material from her 2011 CD titled "Run Away With Me," including the title track, "Dimples Filled With Lies" and "Regret Losing This." Collins, a fan of both classic and new country, found a way to represent both by giving a nod to Miranda Lambert with an inspired cover of "White Liar" and to Dolly Parton with her vivid rendition of "Jolene."
Nora's talents as a singer-songwriter caught the attention of Milwaukee native Willy Porter and the two co-wrote the title track to her most recent CD, "Only The Beginning." Nora performed the title track as well as "Harley," and "Nothing To Do With Me" later in her show. Nora often reminds me of Linda Ronstadt, a champion of song writers. Collins can take any song and give it her own unique spin, often enhancing a song in ways that make it better than the original. Collins has recently been performing an absolutely amazing stripped down version of "God Made Girls" that she delivers with a tone of such sweetness and sincerity that it's quickly becoming one of the best covers in her repertoire.
Nora Collins, like Willie Nelson, is also a Martin guitarist. I spoke to Nora about her choice to play a Martin and she told me, "I love the sweet, rich, deep tone that rings from my DCPA4 Martin. It compliments my high voice." Collins went on to say, "Being a singer-songwriter, finding the perfect guitar is key because when I perform it's solely me and my guitar. When I picked up my Martin guitar for the first time I knew I had found the perfect guitar for me. I'm proud to be an American and I like to support American made products. What's more American than a Martin guitar?"