Willie Nelson’s new label, Legacy, is billing the legend’s new album, Let’s Face the Music and Dance as timed to coincide with Willie’s 80th birthday. True enough, but Willie would be putting out another album now no matter the occasion: He’s been on a two-album-per-year pace for as long as anyone can remember. Such a pace is particularly amazing given the fact that no single artist in popular music history is more synonymous with the road than Willie Nelson. Also remarkable is that the quality of Willie’s last couple of decades has, for the most start, been consistently sturdy, given the prodigious output.
It’s easy to joke that Let’s Face the Music and Dance is Willie’s 5,000th album or something, but such a comment furthers the idea that Willie records quickies and rehashes that satisfy his contract, when all he really wants to do is climb back on the bus to go sing “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” to a crowd of adoring fans in Duluth. Yet if you trace Willie’s studio work since the early ’90s classic-country resurgence (when the alt-country kids helped revitalize the hipness of Willie, Cash, Haggard, etc.), it’s clear that the man has stretched his creativity and recorded as thoughtfully and passionately as at any stage of his career.
This late-period run has included modern-leaning blowouts (2002’s The Great Divide, 2008’s Moment of Forever), genre exercises in reggae (2005’s Countryman), Western swing (2009’s Willie and the Wheel), and jazz blues (Two Men with the Blues with Wynton Marsalis). However, Willie has been most at east with records that pay homage to classic country music (2006’s excellent You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, 2010’s T-Bone Burnett-produced revisionist Country Music, and 2011’s Remember Me, Vol. 1, a survey of 70 years’ worth of country classics.
But Willie also keeps coming back to records that are inevitably dubbed “Stardust Redux”, referencing the landmark 1978 album that, more than any of his other records, made Willie a global superstar and separated him as interpretive singer peerless among his contemporaries. The truly remarkable thing about Stardust is that the collection of Tin Pan Alley standards was played entirely by the same ragtag bunch of hippies in Willie’s band who had been busting out “Whiskey River” in roadhouses for years, and when Willie has gone back to pop standards (1994’s Moonlight Becomes You, 2009’s American Classic, for instance, the records have often been compromised by the presence of studio musicians who have provided a slicker sheen than that of the loose, sensual playing of the Family Band.
Let’s Face the Music is closer to Stardust in its general feel that Willie has gotten in decades, as the songs are played by what remains of the Family. There’s very little here backing Willie’s voice other than Willie’s own guitar (Trigger still, his beat-to-hell old Martin acoustic), his sister Bobbie’s piano, Mickey Raphael’s irreplaceable harmonica embellishments, and Paul English’s brushes on the snare drum.
Although Willie remains a wonder as an octogenarian, in surprisingly good voice and performance stamina on both record and on stage, the years of attrition have taken their inevitable toll on the Family Band (a named used by Willie’s backing musicians since 1971). Guitar-and-vocal wingman Jody Payne retired in 2008 after 35 years of touring with Willie; it was a tough blow to the band’s shows, and Willie has chosen not to replace him for most shows, handling all of the guitar himself these days. Bee Spears, the band’s bassist since 1968, died in 2011, and the new album is dedicated to him.
If Face the Music is indeed a deliberate commemoration of his 80th birthday, the title, at least, feels appropriate, one that acknowledges the hands of time yet celebrates the endurance of this band and its fearless leader. And the album does find these players in good, fighting shape, at least musically speaking. Willie’s voice is clear, his phrasing sharp, Bobbie’s piano carries most of the tunes, and Mickey’s harmonica remains a singular marvel. The music is profoundly chilled-out, of course, and the single-take feel of these songs radiates warmth and intimacy.
The selection of material marks the record as wider-ranging than the other pop-standards albums, taking in a century of popular music from a wide range of Willie’s influence, many of which the band has visited before. Willie previously recorded both “South of the Border” and “Twilight Time” for 1988’s What a Wonderful World; “Vous Et Moi” is also on the band’s 1999 jazz instrument album Night and Day. But the record visits rock, pop, and jazz classics anew, those from the 1930s (Fred Ahlert’s “Walking My Baby Back Home”), 1940s (Mack Gordon’s “You’ll Never Know”), and 1950s (Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox”).
Only a single Willie original is here, “Is the Better Part Over” (first found on 1989’s A Horse Called Music), which blends perfectly with the Irving Berlin and Django Reinhardt numbers that populate the rest of the album. The band isn’t out to break any new ground here, which is what makes the record such a welcome effort; it’s comfortable, graceful, and uniformly pleasant. After years of studio work in which Willie has essentially taken producers’ song requests and sung with guest musicians, it’s nice to hear Willie as relaxed as he is here with the players whom he knows and who know him best. Is the better part over? Who cares. Let’s face the music and dance. Here’s to the next 20 years.