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.