The older he gets, the more Beaver Nelson wants to subtract from his art.
Take, for example, one of the songs on his most recent album, “Positive.” It’s an old one, written back in 1995, three years before his debut record was released. To bring it up to par, he told The Daily Times this week, he went through, line by line, and gutted it.
“I didn’t add a single word to it,” said Nelson, who performs next Wednesday at Sweet P’s BBQ and Soul House. “I cut out a word or two in every line of the song, in all of the verses. It was a strange process, but it made me able to sing the song again. It just had too much of something — too much of a young man in the song for me to sing it without it sounding like a parody.”
It’s part of how things go for the Texas artist these days — he’s looking to take away rather than add, stripping songs down to their barest essence and learning to say more with less. Part of it is born of necessity — as a solo artist, the songs he presents in a live setting are reduced to the barest essentials, a guitar and a rock ’n’ roll yowl that sounds like Paul Westerberg without the boozy slur. Part of it, he said, is where he’s at mentally: As an older, hopefully wiser, individual, he’s able to go back to his older songs and make them leaner works that pack a bigger wallop.
“There’s nothing that’s on the records, from ‘The Last Hurrah’ or since, that I really don’t feel comfortable singing off of any of those records,” he said. “I don’t have to feel the same way as a song I wrote earlier to sing that song anymore, but what does have to happen is that I still have to believe that it’s what I meant when I wrote it. On songs before then, I didn’t quite have my footing, and I think I was trying to sing someone else’s songs. Those songs, I just let go.”
Nelson first picked up the guitar when he was 14; some camp counselors introduced the teen to artists like Dylan and Springsteen, and he began to write and record his own material, selling handmade cassettes to friends. In high school, he routinely drove from Houston to Austin to test the waters of that city’s open mic scene, eventually securing a major-label deal that never worked out because label executives didn’t know how to market him. He made a big enough impact that by 19 he was championed in Rolling Stone, however, and he dabbled in rock bands for several years before going the solo route after one of his heroes, Townes Van Zandt, died.
With his longtime peer “Scrappy” Jud Newcomb by his side, he’s continued to release albums on a regular basis, carving out a niche as a Texas version of Ike Reilly — gritty and lyrically gifted with a penchant for a rock groove that’s impossible to forget. In the studio, he prefers filling out the space in his songs with the full rock ’n’ roll treatment, and while the plan was to make “Positive” a more bare-bones affair, plans changed once he and the boys went out to Marfa, Texas, to make it.
“We cut the basic tracks with that intent, and it was very bare bones — drums, bass, rhythm guitar,” he said. “It was super spare, and then from there, we began adding things. Even though there’s a good bit that we brought in on this album, musically and instrument wise, we were going for more spare sounds; fewer instruments happening at the same time, so it’s more distinct when they do happen. Part of the groove factor on it was definitely the players on the record.”
The grooves, of course, are only as good as the words that propel them forward, and as he’s prone to do these days, some of the making of “Positive” involved pairing the songs down to their essentials — 20 verses whittled down to three, for example, until what remains is a stark and vivid reflection of Nelson’s reality.
“I love to play songs for people who like to hear songs; so if people show up who like to hear songs, and I get to play them and people listen to them, then I’ll like being on the road,” he said. “To know and be known, to understand and be understood — that’s what we’re all doing.”