In some regards, The Willie Nelson Family comes as an inevitable release. Country singers need to periodically make a gospel album (or at least a gospel-adjacent one). It also keeps with tradition if the singer can bring in some family members for an album. Willie Nelson satisfies both requirements with one new record, bringing together some of his favorite spiritual songs as part of a family reunion. These songs (half of them written and previously recorded by Nelson) suit his needs perfectly. The whole family affair plays it casual; we’re hanging out with the Nelsons and some close friends after dinner rather than hearing the latest album. The approach means that fans will likely love the warmth and charm of the release, but it also suggests that the album, if inevitable, isn’t quite essential amid such a deep catalog.
Nelson’s assembled family includes older sister Bobbie, sons Lukas (from Promise of the Real) and Micah, daughters Paula and Amy, and some of his regular bandmates, including drummer Paul English who passed away in 2020. The close connections add to the ease of the performances, where everyone feels at home. For the most part, the group perform music that they’d likely know and could pick up easily. The rendition of “In the Garden” would fit in any rural Baptist church (albeit done more skillfully). Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” seems like an obvious choice, too, but here the performance sounds a little more tossed off than just relaxed, even with the uptick in tempo. Given the roster and song selection, that sort of slippage could be a real danger, but the group mostly avoid it.
As Nelson works through the more traditional Christian songs, he sounds good. Lukas gives him a good bit of vocal help, but Willie still has his voice evident from his steady string of recent releases. His phrasing and delivery have always set him above his peers, but those qualities are less notable on these standard takes. Instead, the harmonies often drive the vocal performances, and when the whole group joins in, the tracks turn into irresistible singalongs.
A couple of tracks provide surprises. Lukas takes the lead on George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”. Taking a different tone lyrically and sonically, the song brings a fullness to the album, standing out without disrupting the flow. Opener “Heaven and Hell” suggests different sorts of topics than the rest of the disc, and Nelson’s “Too Sick to Pray” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me” close out the album with some added complexity. The faith presented across The Willie Nelson Family is beholden to neither tradition nor sentimentality.
The record runs just half an hour, covering mostly familiar terrain, with just enough variety to keep things interesting. The performances stay low-key; this is easy work for these artists. The Willie Nelson Family makes sense to play on a chilly holiday night with your relatives around. It isn’t necessary listening, but it almost inevitably does what it sets out to do.