PopMatters Picks

Willie Nelson's 'Ride Me Back Home' Is His Latest Career High

Photo: Legacy Recordings

Willie Nelson's Ride Me Back Home continues a hot streak of recent records that are every bit as good as anything he's recorded. And, yes, that includes Red-Headed Stranger and Stardust.

Ride Me Back Home
Willie Nelson

Legacy Recordings

21 June 2019

Willie Nelson is a staggeringly prolific recording artist. He's released dozens upon dozens of studio albums, live records, collaborative efforts, and compilations since releasing his debut album, …And Then I Wrote, in 1962. Quantity, of course, does not always equal quality. The flow of Nelson music has never stopped, even when Willie has appeared to be on cruise control. During those times, solid all-the-way-through Willie albums could be rare. Devoted fans could find scattered gems on Nelson's blues, reggae, or children's albums if they were inclined to mine for them.

These days, though, neither quality nor quantity are issues. At 86, Nelson is as prolific as ever and he's releasing some of the most essential music of his long career. His new album, Ride Me Back Home, is a worthy addition to a set of wonderful albums that include God's Problem Child (2017), Last Man Standing (2018), and Frank Sinatra tribute, My Way (2018).

As with the three previous albums, age and mortality factor into Ride Me Back Home. Unlike Johnny Cash's late-period records, though, Nelson mostly uses a light touch when approaching these weighty topics. "Come on Time", a Nelson co-write with producer Buddy Cannon, is essentially "On the Road Again", 40 years down the road. The jaunty rhythm of the much-earlier song remains, but now Father Time is driving ole Willie's tour bus, and Nelson is whimsically concerned about where the bus is headed.

In addition to "Come on Time", Nelson and Cannon have co-written the sly "Seven Year Itch" and the reflective "One More Song to Write" for Ride Me Back Home. These highlights are joined by a new recording of an early 1970s Nelson tune, "Stay Away from Lonely Places", a torch song every bit as affecting as anything Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records in the 1950s. Nelson and Cannon have worked together for more than a decade and that comfort level shows. While Nelson has successfully worked with many great producers (Booker T. Jones, T Bone Burnett, and Daniel Lanois among them), his collaboration with Cannon as producer and co-songwriter, is proving to be ever-more fruitful.

Cannon focuses on the sound of Nelson's voice, surrounding it with musicianship that is understated but engaging at the same time. That is most evident on Nelson's cover of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are", which could have easily collapsed into schmaltz, but doesn't. It is tempting to wish that, instead of covering "Just the Way You Are", Nelson instead tackled the moody "Vienna", a deep album track from the same Joel album, The Stranger. Billy Joel himself has been giving recent concertgoers the choice between hearing "Just the Way You Are" and "Vienna". The fans have voted for "Vienna" every time. But Nelson's conversational reading of "Just the Way You Are" feels just right, and the musicians (including Nelson playing his beloved guitar, Trigger) seem happy to go along for the ride.

Covers are more predominant on Ride Me Back Home than on God's Problem Child or Last Man Standing. These include two classics by the late, great Guy Clark: "My Favorite Picture of You", a poignant ballad inspired by a Polaroid photo of Clark's late wife Susan; and "Immigrant Eyes", a grandson's reflection on his grandfather's experience coming to America. These two songs remind listeners of Clark's brilliance, as well as providing an emotional and subtle political center for Ride Me Back Home.

Ride Me Back Home lightens up with Mac Davis' goofy ode to humility, "It's Hard to Be Humble", which Nelson performs with his sons Lukas and Micah. The fact that Willie waited until he was pushing 90 to sing the lyrics, "My friends say that I'm egotistical / Hell, I don't even know what that means / I guess it has something to do with the way / That I fill out my skintight blue jeans", simply seems like a perfectly Willie Nelson thing to do.

Pop and country music critics and scholars rightfully hail Willie Nelson albums such as Shotgun Willie, Stardust, and Red-Headed Stranger as classics. Nelson is decades past those career highs, but it's time to acknowledge that God's Problem Child, Last Man Standing, and, now, Ride Me Back Home, easily stand among the best music created by one of true originals of American music.







Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.