Roy Orbison was namechecked early on by Bruce Springsteen in his song, “Thunder Road.” Weezer memorialized buddy Holly. But who speaks for Ricky Nelson? Long dismissed as a pre-packaged teen idol, Ricky Nelson’s influence has been hard to gauge until very recently. Bob Dylan cited Nelson’s abilities in his autobiography, Chronicles, Vol.1. A CD greatest hits compilation of Nelson’s songs was released this year to surprising acclaim and success. The next step in the adulation treatment is always the tribute album, and Nelson is no exception. Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson (he shortened his name to Rick to avoid the teen idol stigma) is a tribute album that supports CancerCare, which at first seems odd considering Nelson died in a plane crash, until I realized that his daughter Tracy is a cancer survivor.
While most tribute albums read like a virtual `who’s who’ of recording stars, this one leaves you with just the second word of that phrase. In fact, the only names that I could recognize off the bat were Dolorean, Marshall Crenshaw and Liz Durrett, and that’s out of a 20-song CD! But closer examination revealed some old surprising favorites, such as the performer of the leadoff track, “One X One.” The Primary 5 is the new band featuring Paul Quinn, formerly of Teenage Fanclub. Oed Ronne, the performer of the fourth track, “Take a Broken Heart,” is from the late ’80s / early ’90s band, the Ocean Blue. Nic Dalton played bass for the Lemonheads. You can see what I mean.
Quite a few of the bands featured on the tribute manage to faithfully capture the surf / rockabilly style that Nelson so loved, including the Voyces’ version of “Poor Little Fool,” one of Nelson’s stellar classics. Other songs are given different treatments, some slowed to a crawl, some given updated guitar fuzz and others with something completely different. Nelson didn’t die incredibly young, though his death was tragic. He lived just long enough to experience the rejection of his `new’ music, the effect of which led Nelson to take a hand at writing (one of the criticisms of Nelson is that he never wrote his own material) and produce one of his best tracks, “Garden Party.” This track is featured here as performed by Jeff Mellin who updates the song with a subtle and delicate composition.
Ricky Nelson’s music career was somewhat of a happy accident, resulting from a recording he made of an Elvis Presley song to impress a girl. Of course, it was easy for Nelson to become a teen idol as he was already on television thanks to his musical / acting parents, Ozzie & Harriet Nelson. At the end of each show, once his music career began in earnest, Nelson would perform a new song, making the family sitcom one of the biggest music promotional tools of the time. It was in this way that songs like “Poor Little Fool,” “Lonesome Town,” “Hello Mary Lou” and especially “Travelin’ Man” became such stellar hits. From 1957 to 1963, Nelson enjoyed his most successful period, only fading away as the sitcom’s ratings started to fail and idol worship turned to acts like the Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. Easy to Be Free rightfully places Nelson back into the limelight as one of the most entertaining acts in early rock and roll. The only setback of the album is that no one can really sing as gracefully and smoothly as Nelson.
Rick Nelson- Greatest Hits
Various Artists- Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack
Buddy Holly- Greatest Hits