What Were You Doing At That Age?

Originally posted October 10, 2008

This post’s fundamental basis is in error. I wrote it based on information given for Tracy Nelson at All-Music Guide, which states she was born December 27, 1947, in Madison, Wisconson. That would make her sixteen at the time Deep Are The Roots was recorded in 1964. But that date is in error; Wikipedia lists her birth date as December 27, 1944, as does the first edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopdia of Rock & Roll. That would put Nelson at the age of nineteen while recording Deep Are The Roots, which makes much more sense. While my comments on the timing of the sessions are no longer valid, my comments as to the quality of the music remain so. Note added August 24, 2011.

So what were you doing when you were sixteen and seventeen?

I was lugging footballs and a training kit from the locker room to the practice field and playing my horn in the orchestra. I spent many evenings playing table-top hockey with Rick and Rob and spent many hours of my days pining over various girls, none of whom returned my interests.

But Tracy Nelson, well, she was already in the recording studio when she was sixteen and her first record came out when she was seventeen, if I read the stories right. Nelson, who would found the eclectic band Mother Earth in the San Francisco Bay area in 1968, continues to perform and record to this day, with her most recent album being You’ll Never Be A Stranger At My Door, a collection of country-tinged songs released in 2007 on the Memphis International label.

I’ve not heard the new album, nor a couple of releases that came out in the 1990s, but my collection of LPs and CDs includes everything else Nelson has recorded on her own and with Mother Earth since her first work. That first work was an album of traditional blues titled Deep Are The Roots, recorded in 1964, according to All-Music Guide. As Nelson was born in late 1947, that would make her sixteen at the time the album was recorded and seventeen when it was released on the Prestige label in 1965.

The first thing that comes to mind when listening to Deep Are The Roots is that Nelson’s voice, whether she was sixteen or seventeen, was already a formidable tool. One hears the depth and resonance that seemed so surprising in the context of a full band on the first Mother Earth albums (Living With the Animals in 1968 and Make A Joyful Noise in 1969). On Deep Are The Roots, produced by the legendary Sam Charters, Nelson’s voice neatly fills the spaces between the piano and guitar work and the harp lines provided by legend Charlie Musselwhite. (Nelson shared the piano work on the album with Harvey Smith and split duties on guitar with Peter Wolfe.)

If there is a caveat to be attached to the record – there was supposedly a CD release in 2007 but I can find no trace of it available online this morning – it’s that, despite the wondrous voice Nelson brought to the studio when she was sixteen or seventeen, she was young, and that comes through. She was talented, but she just wasn’t experienced enough to fully inhabit the twelve traditional roots tunes – most blues, some more aligned with folk – that make up Deep Are The Roots.

Still, she sometimes surprises the listener. For example, when Nelson she lights into the “Trust No Man,” the album’s closer, you hear a singer who’s close to unlocking that door of experience. But those moments happen less frequently than one would like.

That’s an assessment, not a criticism: For Nelson to record an album at the age of sixteen or seventeen was a remarkable feat. I was hauling footballs around and mooning over sophomore girls when I was sixteen, for pete’s sake. But one can listen to the young Tracy Nelson on Deep Are The Roots and then listen to the records she recorded even three or four years later and hear an immense growth in interpretive ability.

I guess what I’m saying is that Deep Are The Roots isn’t as good an album as Tracy Nelson released later on, but it does provide a look at her talents and skills as they were growing. For those who like Nelson’s work – with Mother Earth and on her own – that’s enough of a recommendation.

The lengthy notes on the back of the jacket – written by Federigo Coizón – say that Nelson was twenty at the time. That’s not true. She was born December 27, 1947, and Deep Are The Roots was released in 1965, so she was seventeen when the record came out, unless it was released in the last days of December 1965, when Nelson would have just turned eighteen. If the sessions took place in 1964, as All-Music Guide indicates in its biography of Nelson, then she was likely sixteen when the project started. On the other hand, All-Music Guide also says that Nelson began playing music while a student at the University of Wisconsin. Was she in college at the age of sixteen? The dates don’t seem to make sense.

Either way, I can see no reason for the notes to say Nelson was twenty at the time. I wonder about the accuracy of the notes anyway, as Coizón credits the “currently-popular” version of “The House of the Rising Sun” to the Rolling Stones and not to the Animals. As an aside, Nelson’s version of the song has a melody that I’ve never heard used before; the notes say she learned the song by listening to Leadbelly’s version.

Motherless Child Blues
Long Old Road
Startin’ For Chicago
Baby Please Don’t Go
Oh My Babe
Ramblin’ Man
Candy Man
Grieving Hearted Blues
Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues
House of the Rising Sun
Jesus Met The Woman At The Well
Trust No Man

Tracy Nelson – Deep Are The Roots [1965]



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