At last year’s Farm Aid concert in St. Louis, Willie Nelson made a guest appearance during Dave Matthews’ set to sing a duet on Matthews’ “Gravedigger”, after which Matthews remarked, “Whenever we get behind the things he believes in, the better off we’ll all be”. Certainly, when you consider Willie’s remarkable run of longevity in terms of artistic relevance and physical stamina, it’s a hard sentiment to knock. What Willie believes in are singing, playing guitar, living on the road, running, golfing, smoking weed, meditating, supporting family farms, playing cards, using bio-diesel fuel, protecting animals, and being nice to people. It’s a formula that, the older Willie gets (77 in April), the more people gravitate toward the Willie aesthetic as their favorite way-of-life fantasy.
Oh, to be Willie, they say, and when Willie walks into any room or accepts hugs and handshakes outside his bus afters shows, his fans feel like some of that magical Willie grace has rubbed off on them a little. One night, while waiting for Willie to come off of his bus, a friend of mine told his wife that if Willie tried to kiss her that she should “go with it”.
Everybody loves Willie. He’s music’s biggest democratizer, with everyone on the left and right of the political divide claiming him as one of their own. Yes, Willie walks between the raindrops, even when it seems that the shit is in the vicinity of the fan. While everyone made IRS jokes for ten years after Willie got pinched for $17 million in back taxes, Willie later said, “It was no big deal at all”.
What, obviously, more than anything has kept Willie going is his herculean commitment to playing and singing country music. Willie once told Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes that when it was his time to go, he wanted to walk over to his grave, play a final guitar flourish, and then fall in. But the life he loves of making music with his friends shows no signs of even slowing, let alone stopping. He continues to play some 200 shows a year, and his band, the Willie Nelson Family, the same ragtag bunch of hippies he’s been touring with since the ’70s, are still intact, only now showing signs of attrition with the retirement of guitarist Jody Payne.
On Willie’s 2009 shows, he couldn’t bear to replace Jody although young son Lukas is starting to slide into the role now and then. Most often, though, Willie is the only guitarist on stage, and he rides that beat-to-hell Martin hard, often trading riffs with harp player Mickey Raphael, who has a sort of Dorian Gray thing going on, more evidence of the Willie grace factor.
In the studio, Willie continues to turn out records at a dizzying pace. Keeping up with Willie Nelson albums has always been a chore, but up until about 1993, Willie was “only” churning out an album or two a year, besides truck-stop mix-tapes, and you pretty much knew which albums you were supposed to own (Phases and Stages) and which were for completists only (hello there, Island In the Sea). Across the Borderline, the excellent Don Was-produced mostly-covers project, launched the Willie Renaissance, a full-scale rediscovery/re-appreciation bandwagon that has lasted to this day, with every producer, artist, and songwriter alive wanting a piece of those good Willie vibes.
Willie has never been one to turn people away. As a result, there has, for the last 15 years, been a new record with every change of season—big-budget blowouts, acoustic affairs, genre exercises, collaborations—plus a couple dozen of those duet/tribute specials. Willie with Keith Richards! Willie with Steven Tyler! Willie with Ghostface Killah! Hey, is that Charo!?
The Aughts saw a decade-long frenzy of Willie studio output. It’s well established that he works extremely fast in the studio, usually happy and ready to move on after the first take, and with studio output at this pace, quality control is an issue. While most of the decade’s records, the majority on the Lost Highway label, are hit-and-miss, each contains some real keepers, which Lost Highway, a single-disc collection released toward the end of last year tried to make sense of. Whether the label picked the right tunes for that mix is, of course, subject for debate, but at 17 tracks spanning nine albums, it’s a useful compendium of where the icon has been.
And he’s been all over the place, starting with 2002’s The Great Divide, a star-studded semi-disaster that had too much of everything—too much goopy, string-laden production, with Rob Thomas and others trying to shoehorn Willie into songs designed for the Adult Contemporary charts. Songbird, the Ryan Adams-produced album from 2006, sounds great in comparison, with Adams’ backing band, the Cardinals, playing live in the studio and Adams dreaming up cool covers for Willie to sing. Lots of keepers on that album, especially the title track, the Christine McVie classic from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other
Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other
Then there’s the forever-in-the-making reggae album, 2005’s Countryman, Willie’s most disappointing record in years, mostly because he’d been hyping it in his shows for so long with super-groovy versions of “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo”. It sounded like a perfect match of Willie and hemp-y music produced by Don Was, but when it came out, it was mostly just a bunch of really old Willie originals from the Atlantic years, like “One in a Row”, backed by lackluster reggae arrangements that never quite fit.
Moment of Forever (2008) is worth owning if not entirely successful. It’s another attempt at the big time, this one produced by Kenny Chesney, who knows a thing or two about making hit records, and Moment of Forever did crack the country Top Ten. The album is all over the place, including the aforementioned “Gravedigger” and songs by Guy Clark, Randy Newman, and others, plus Willie’s own “Over You Again”, the record’s peak moment, complete with one of those familiar snarly guitar solos.
You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker from 2006 is Willie’s best record of the decade, if only because Willie sounds the most inspired and comfortable, exclusively singing country music with breezy, jazzy arrangements played by an ace band. This one will remain timeless long after the novelty of the heavily-produced records from this period has worn off, given the timeless take of “You Don’t Know Me” and a swingy “Bubbles in My Beer”.
One of the decade’s most overlooked is 2004’s It Always Will Be. That chilled-out folk-country album is one of the decade’s best, despite some clunkers like the silly “Big Booty” and a badly out-of-place rock version of “Midnight Rider”. Check out “Overtime”, a Lucinda Williams original, on which the two of them sound great enough singing together to make you root for a whole album together. All you have to do is ask, remember!
The ’00s also saw some strange odds and ends, including a #1 smash, “Beer for My Horses”, the goofy Toby Kieth duet, a song popular enough to make its way into Willie’s nightly setlists. Another live staple lately is “Superman”, written while Willie was under doctor’s orders to take it easy a couple years back (“Too many pain pills and too much pot”, it begins). How about that homemade video for “Shoeshine Man”, perhaps Willie’s most revealing clip ever, demonstrating the results of endless idle time on the bus and copious amounts of marijuana?
Then there’s the novelty track “Cowboys are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other”, the most talked-about Willie song in years. It’s actually a decades-old Ned Sublette song that Willie decided to record after Brokeback Mountain became a hit. Less welcome was “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain”, a moronic answer to the previous song, told from the perspective of a homophobic paranoid with the refrain, “That shit ain’t right”. It would be nice to believe Willie was playing a character here, except that someone calls him by name at one point. It’s a cool-sounding tune but easily the dumbest Willie track ever put to tape.
That misstep aside, it was a hell of a run, the vast majority of which was recorded after the legend turned 70. These albums felt like much more than a victory lap, but music from an artist who works quickly but is also continually open to pushing himself in new directions while occasionally easing back into familiar styles, and if last year and his start to the new decade are any indication, those old styles will be getting plenty of play during Willie’s golden years. Last year gave us the underrated American Classic, a charming jazz-vocal album, and the excellent Western-swing party, Willie and the Wheel, the #1 album on PopMatters’Best Country Music of 2009 list.
A return to jazz standards and classic country stylings brought things back down to the basics of why everyone fell in love with Willie in the first place. His voice on those records, at age 76, is a slightly craggier instrument—he growls more in his lower register these days, and when he pushes for notes at the top, as on “Come Rain or Shine”, it’s brassier than it used to be, but all things considered, Willie’s voice remains remarkably strong and clear. People like to argue superlatives, and George Jones might get the most votes for Greatest Country Singer Ever, but no country vocalist has ever sung as much diverse material better than Willie Nelson, and these new records provide yet more supportive evidence.
An interesting moment came, in fact, at the end of American Classic with an update of “Always on my Mind”. While his 1982 mega-hit needed no improvement, it ended up working. After all, no one ever gets tired of hearing it, and it’s a song that Willie has always sung extraordinarily well; even on ramshackle live performances, he tended to ease up on phrasing liberties, maintaining the song’s indelible melody. Bob Dylan once marveled at how Willie made everyone forget Elvis’s version of “Always on my Mind”, a feat previously thought impossible. On American Classic, Willie turns in a beautiful version, even though it’s a song that, over that last 25 years, he has sung into a live microphone more times than he’s showered, and its inclusion ends up being both a reminder of the passing of time and a celebration of what we still have with us.
We still have Willie Nelson with us, and Rounder Records is currently shrink-wrapping copies of Willie’s first album for that label, appropriately titled Country Music, set for an April release. The record is produced by T-Bone Burnett, who brought along many of the musicians from Raising Sand, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album that took home last year’s Grammy for Album of the Year. Originally described as Willie’s first bluegrass album, that label doesn’t quite fit, but Country Music is indeed steeped in traditionalism, continuing the run that started with Asleep at the Wheel. The record is full of old-time fiddles and mandolins and ’60s-style guitars and pedal steels. You know, country music.
Willie sounds supremely laid-back singing these songs, wrapped as he is in these old-fashioned arrangements. Burnett provides the kind of throwback record that has been part of an epic winning streak that includes Raising Sand and the award-winning soundtracks to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart. There is nothing on Country Music to suggest that the record couldn’t have sounded identical to this if it were made 40 years ago. The music takes in a range of the hard-hurting, coal-mining, god-fearing country stylings of the ’40s.
The record traces the paths of country music back to music that influenced Willie himself, covering songs associated with the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Merle Travis. It’s an album full of romantic ballads (“Drinking Champagne”, a particularly gorgeous take), peppy swing (“Pistol Packing Mama”), and tranquil gospel (Hank’s “House of Gold”, getting a lot of love already this year—it opens Patty Griffin’s new record). Willie’s guitar plays a central role on several tunes, but seamlessly so; there’s nothing ostentatious on a record that keeps things grounded in timelessly great songs, Willie’s mellow but rich singing and playing, and tasteful instrumentation throughout.
Willie’s hair is now down to his tailbone (how many 77-year-old men share that trait?), and you can see his trademark red locks fade to gray about midway up his back—it’s like examining the rings of a tree. It’s a reminder of the march of time, and everyone wants Willie Nelson to live forever, so you get the feeling that the crowds these days are soaking up this otherworldly figure with more urgency than in years past. Still, the Teens are off to a jubilant start, and with the legend on the road again, there’s plenty to relish and celebrate as a giant continues to walk among us, singing country music.