I put out a call a few weeks back to a group of women involved in the Seattle music scene—an assortment of writers, artists, photographers, entrepreneurs, personalities, band managers, and bloggers I’ve come to know since I started writing for Seattle Weekly more than five years ago. I was reaching out with a request: Pitch me a show, we’ll go together, and afterward I’ll write about it. The idea is to connect with local ladies doing cool things in and for Seattle music in an informal live-music setting, that, when filtered through the lens of gender, might yield a few insights about what it’s like, for the both of us, to experience as women.
The response has been great and my datebook is filling up, but few pitches pleased me more than that of Barbara Mitchell, who suggested Willie Nelson at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma. I was thrilled, and somewhat amused: I love Willie—country music’s everlasting road warrior —but Barbara, as Seattle rock writer Hannah Levin once wrote, “subscribes to an overall gothic aesthetic.” Freewheeling Willie “Roll-Me-Up-and-Smoke-Me-When-I-Die” Nelson? Really?
“It’s Willie fucking Nelson,” Barbara said excitedly after we met last Thursday and walked to the Sounder that would take us to T-Town. “You just have to see him.”
It was a good reminder of what makes such a perspective so valuable, especially today in Seattle’s rapidly changing music scene. An open mind to music of all stripes can open doors to tastes you might not know you have or friends you have yet to meet. Though she’s told me horror stories about a certain Phish sound check, generally speaking, Barbara’s enduring support of Seattle music has not only made her a lot of buddies in town, it’s also been the backbone of her freelancing career, allowing her to score gigs in PR and band management (for the likes of Death Cab for Cutie), her own record label (Roslyn Records), and her current role in media relations for One Reel, the arts organization that runs Bumbershoot. (For more about Barbara’s work, read my profile of her in last year’s Best of Seattle issue, “Best Arts Promoter.”)
The EQC was packed—filled with gambling patrons and cigarette smoke—and the show was sold out. It was my fourth time seeing Willie, the second at a casino, and the first that it occurred to me I might not see the man, now 81 and visibly aged, perform again—at least live, anyhow. Barbara had seen him before too; she even once got a hug backstage at Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit. “My friend had liberated a bottle of red from Dashboard Confessional’s dressing room,” she said, “so I was a little more outgoing than I usually am.”
True, Barbara was more reserved than the typical fan that night—an assortment of brawny dudes double-fisting Bud Lights and senior couples rallying for a special weeknight occasion. I was too. Dinner was a half-eaten sandwich on my lap (Barbara had a hot dog) when Willie came on promptly at 8 p.m., family in tow: sister Bobbie Nelson on keys, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Paul English on drums, Kevin Smith on bass. The veteran songwriter wasted no time launching into “Whiskey River” to a hearty cheer from the crowd, and quickly rolled into a set of the usual standards: “Georgia on My Mind,” “On the Road Again,” “Me and Paul,” “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
But the performance was unbalanced—the sound muffled, the spotlight out of sync, the tempo often off-beat, and Willie looked bone-tired. I was bummed, but Barbara shrugged it off. “You don’t go to see Willie Nelson for the technical aspect,” she said. “You go because he’s a living legend.” She’s right, of course—even though the icon was a little road-weary, I couldn’t help but think that watching him perform “Always on My Mind” should be on everyone’s bucket list. Barbara was more annoyed by the bros in the row ahead of us, constantly hopping out of their seats for more beer, blocking her view. She did, however, really enjoy Bobbie’s stoic way at the keys, dutifully plunking out her ragtime solos: “I just love her!”
I thought that was interesting. You have to love Bobbie, Willie’s “little” sister who is in fact three years older than her brother. It’s her plucky piano that sets the lively barroom feel of so many Willie tunes. Yet she’s far from a show-woman. Head down, focused, slow to smile: you get the feeling she’d be perfectly fine playing just offstage, out of the spotlight, ever willing and happy to support “big” bro.
Perhaps that’s what Seattle music has in Barbara—a reliable, loyal ally who’s not looking for recognition, but just to be on the team. The kind of woman who would work press for a very young Death Cab free of charge just because she liked the songs. She deserves a lot of recognition for efforts like that, but she’s certainly not mining for it. She’s just looking forward to what’s next.
Another show, of course. “Barry Manilow at the Key in May,” she says, without a hint of sarcasm.