Interpreting someone else’s song is an art in and of itself. In the right hands, a song can be given a new life, or at least shined so its strengths are seen under a new light. The best song interpreters have a handle on their voices which allows them to phrase everything for just the right effect. A skilled singer will pause at just the right times, articulate each word carefully and powerful, seemingly without effort, and make the song sound new.
Start trying to identify the great song interpreters and you’ll inevitably end up in the realm of jazz vocal standards: Ella Fitzgerald singing the songbooks of Gershwin, Porter, and Kern, for example, or modern-day singing masters like Jimmy Scott and Tony Bennett doing the same.
Willie Nelson isn’t likely to be mentioned first, or even 20th, but he certainly is comfortable singing others’ songs. Though he started his career writing songs for others to sing (most famously, “Crazy” for Patsy Cline), many of his biggest hits as a singer have been covers. His classic album Red Headed Stranger includes his equally classic take on the Acuff-Rose chestnut “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”. His version of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” is widely played. His 1978 Stardust album of jazz standards was a big enough success that he’s repeated the routine a few times since. In the ‘80s he had a hit with Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind” and did a well-known duet with Merle Haggard on Townes Van Zandt’s outlaw tale “Pancho and Lefty”. And the list goes on…
Nelson has covered blues songs, reggae songs, and Peter Gabriel even, yet he sounds most at home in a traditional country setting, singing the good old songs that he grew up with. Nelson’s first song to enter the country top 40 was a cover of Texas swing giant Bob Wills’ “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)”, and in 2006 he’s come back to some of those Wills songs, songs which he has said he remembers as the soundtrack to his teenage years. And even those songs often had another songwriter standing behind the curtain, invisible to most. Cindy Walker wrote songs for Wills and his Texas Playboys, and for Ernest Tubb, and Hank Snow, and George Jones and many others. Thirteen of Walker’s songs are sung by Nelson on his album You Don’t Know Me: Songs of Cindy Walker, and he does an amazing job of it, coming off like one of the most naturally gifted song interpreters around.
One key to You Don’t Know Me‘s success is the atmosphere. Fiddler Johnny Gimble, who himself played with Wills, is at the front of an ace band that creates a timeless mood from classic country elements: fiddle, upright bass, piano, steel guitar, harmonica. Vocal group the Jordonaires lend lovely harmony vocals, far enough in the background to just add a gentle glow to the song, never threatening to overshadow.
On top of it all is Nelson’s voice, as distinct and warm as ever. His careful, laidback sense of phrasing fits these songs perfectly— you get the impression he’s lived with these songs for so long that they’re second nature to him, yet the precision of his singing is impeccable, certainly not an afterthought.
The right singer can wring so much emotion out of a tune and some words, and do it simply, without embellishment or showiness. That’s the case here, as Nelson really inhabits these songs, yet he also sounds like he’s having a ball, not only on the jumpier, more playful swing numbers, like “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age”, “Sugar Moon”, and “Cherokee Maiden”, but on the more maudlin and serious songs as well.
There’s a serious, universally heart-wrenching subject behind most of these songs: the pursuit of love, or at least someone to hold, and the way the weight of that pursuit can bear down on you when you’re alone, when you think of the years that pass or consider the chances you’ve missed. There are continual references to being broken, lost, empty, heartsick. “Bubbles in My Beer” opens the album, with Nelson sitting on a bar stool contemplating wasted years and missed chances. It’s amazing how forlorn Nelson sounds in the middle of light-hearted, bouncy music, and how affecting that juxtaposition can be.
As the album proceeds, Nelson pretends not to care about an ex-love’s new love (“Not That I Care”), dreams of being held by the lover who has left him (“Take Me in Your Arms”), longs for someone who’s unaware of his affections (“You Don’t Know Me”), promises to forget about the past in exchange for love (“I Don’t Care”), pursues a crush (“Miss Molly”), cries into his wine glass (“The Warm Red Wine”), and, finally, settles for marriage just as the true love he’s been pining for re-emerges, a little too late (“Just Walkin’ Out the Door”). Each tale of heartbreak, loneliness, and romantic naivete is sung by Nelson with great passion, wistfulness, and wisdom, his voice crying at the right times and winking in a knowing way exactly when it’s called for.
Walker’s songs are in their own way as well-crafted and timeless as the jazz vocal songs referred to as standards, just coming from a different tradition, time, and part of the country. And in Nelson’s hands they’re as lovingly handled. His comfort—with the songs, their milieu, and their emotions—is no doubt part of what makes his renditions shine so bright. But it’s also how crafty he is with his voice, how well he utilizes each sound from his throat in a way that truly drives the song home emotionally, making listeners feel like they’ve cried the same tears for the same exact reasons, whether they really have or not.