Willie Nile (BA ’71) has seen it all. A lifelong rock ’n’ roll troubadour who has donated guitar strings to John Lennon, toured with The Who and jammed with Bruce Springsteen, the Buffalo native is hard to impress. Still, Nile is thrilled to recount the luminaries he met during his college years.
“I used to see [Robert] Creeley and [Allen] Ginsberg read. I saw Frank Zappa, Procol Harum and Janis Joplin play,” says Nile somewhat breathlessly after a hometown gig in Buffalo. “I had a really rich time at UB … I even got gassed!” he adds, recalling the protests that swept campus in 1970.
Inspired by the Beat writers, French poetry and early rock singles, Nile knew he was destined to pursue a career in the arts. After UB, he hitchhiked to New York City determined to record, but was sidelined by pneumonia. When he recovered, he performed as a solo act in the dwindling folk and nascent punk scenes. Years of soaking up the smoky nightclub atmosphere and rubbing shoulders with his idols eventually paid off for the songwriter. His self-titled debut album was released in 1980 to wide acclaim, though little chart success.
Dozens of recordings later, Nile’s blend of literate folk and gritty rock remains a critical favorite. His latest album, the quietly introspective “If I Was a River” (2014), has earned some of the highest praise of Nile’s long career—in its review, the UK magazine “Uncut” called him “New York City’s unofficial poet laureate.” Notable fans include songwriting icons like Springsteen, Bono and Paul Simon. Mainstream commercial success, however, has remained elusive and, according to the artist, unwanted.
“Fame is not a path that’s going to get you to a place of great meaning,” Nile says. “Make no mistake, I’d love to be stinking rich, but the idea of fame just makes me laugh. I’m basically a storyteller—that’s what I love to do most.”
Yet Nile’s profile continues to grow. In the past year he has joined Springsteen and The Who onstage in New York City, and met with activist Malala Yousafzai in Washington, D.C. (Nile’s song “This Is Our Time” was used as the theme for a Voice of America event about the Nobel Peace Prize winner.) He is completing a new studio album, planning an autobiography and, from all appearances, having the time of his life.
“I’ve been so lucky. I’m still learning at my age,” says Nile, now 67. One could say that he is teaching, too. His rousing live performances and nonstop tour schedule are enough to inspire any up-and-coming musician.