Artists hold vast respect for Willie Nile

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BRATTLEBORO — Springsteen. Petty. Costello. Dylan. These iconic singer-songwriters share many commonalities: Vast respect for their craft. A rabid fan base. Careers that stretch at least four decades. One could easily argue that all four had their very best work released in the first half of their careers. Many would agree that although their latter catalogues contained some worthy material, it was no match for their early stuff.

Though much less famous, Willie Nile has this in common with the aforementioned: vast respect — particularly among other artists, rabid fans, and a long career. What separates Nile is that his more recent work is his very best.

His 2006 Album "Streets of New York" was tabbed "a platter for the ages" by Uncut Magazine. Rolling Stone called "The Innocent Ones" one of the "Top Ten Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011." More recently, 2013's "American Ride" won Best Album of the Year by Twangville Magazine and landed on dozens of top ten lists. U2's Bono called it "one of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America"

You can also count Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, Pete Townshend and the late Lou Reed as admirers of Willie Nile.

It all started in the early '70s folk scene in Greenwich Village — and that is where Nile happened to be earlier this week when he reminisced about his beginnings in a phone interview. "When I graduated from the University of Buffalo with a Philosophy degree I moved right away to New Your to start playing in clubs to see if I could get my songs recorded."

Nile — who will be appearing next Thursday at The Stone Church — wrote songs in college but never performed them, until he arrived in the Big Apple. "It was a very exciting time," he recalled. "It was Bohemia, right smack dab in the middle of The Village, sitting on my fire escape smoking a cigarette watching the world below, I could see Dylan just a few doors down I just grabbed my guitar and started playing in clubs."

One of those clubs was CBGB, a fond memory for the newbie from Buffalo. "I got my guitar, walked the length of Bleecker Street, down to The Bowery ... I walked in and asked the woman behind the counter who I should talk to and she said that would be Hilly. He's in the back, just wait, he'll be out."

Of course, it was not quite that simple. "About a half hour goes by and I'm nursing a beer, and no Hilly, so I went over to look at the jukebox and I notice that the last two songs were by the guy named Hilly Kristal. So I put about four dollars worth of quarters in and proceeded to play those songs over and over and over. I sat back and waited and sure enough about 20 minutes after that, after six or seven plays in a row a bear of a man, clearly just woken up from a sleep comes walking out from the back. So I walk up to him and ask, "Are you Hilly? I like your songs. What do I gotta do to play here?" Sleepy Kristal just told Nile to get up there and play.

Nile performed that night and earned a gig, just weeks before the club turned into Punk Mecca. Then, after years of paying his dues in small clubs, Nile finally got his break. "I got written up by Robert Palmer in the NewYork Times. He wrote this glowing I couldn't have written it better if I'd done it myself. The record companies came pouring down, and I signed to a major label. Made my first record and that was the first time I ever played with a band, Then we toured across the U.S. and The Who's management came out to see me. Someone from the record label told me that Pete was a big fan of my first album. I took it with a grain of salt. I thought 'How would they know?' So they came out to see us; The Who were already on tour and they kicked off the band that was already opening and we got to open for The Who for the rest of the tour across the U.S."

So, Nile went from playing in front of 20-plus to 20,000-plus.

Years later he became disenchanted with the music biz, and walked away for several years, then came back with a vengeance. "I always kept writing. Writing songs is what I do. Luckily, since I had such faith, I just never gave up. These past five, six years have been my best years by far ... I have been very, very fortunate and the press has been good to me. I think it is because I give it everything I got."

"It has definitely been interesting, definitely not your normal arc!" Nile laughed, then added, "Usually rockers don't write their best stuff later on. It is usually a young man's game. But I am still feelin' it."

Nile will be at The Stone Church, 210 Main St., on Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 advance, available at stonechurchvt.com, or $30 at the door.

Dave Madeloni may be reached at madeloni@aol.com


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