The Riff
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The Riff

Twilight Willie

At age 89, Willie Nelson drops yet another brilliant album

Willie Nelson released A Beautiful Time on April 29, his 89th birthday. Image: Pamela Springsteen (Bruce’s sister), wideopencountry.com.

One recent Sunday as I started to cook brunch, my wife cued up a new album on Spotify. Over country strains a somewhat gruff voice came on, sounding like a cross between Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. “Who is this?” I asked. She replied, “Who do ya think?”

Then an unmistakable Trigger guitar solo confirmed that it was indeed Willie — namely, his new LP titled A Beautiful Time, released on his 89th birthday.

As Texan ex-pats, my wife and I are natural-born Willie fanatics — we have more than a dozen of his albums and at least a half-dozen ticket stubs from his gigs. Nelson’s music is like the aural equivalent of salted almonds: tasty, substantive, comforting. This new collection stands out as a beautifully realized travelogue about aging, mortality, and the joy of living.

Willie Nelson’s A Beautiful Time (2022) is his 72nd studio album and his fourth one since the pandemic lockdown began. Image: nodepression.com.

For the record, I like lots of music that’s not created by old farts. As it turns out, this essay continues my trilogy here at The Riff about Grand Old Masters: first, Paul McCartney’s recent exploits (including Get Back/Let It Be); then a revealing NYC exhibition about Woody Guthrie (as well as the opening of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa). Along comes Willie’s new album.

As a songwriter, Nelson belongs in the same paragraph with those guys: He’s written or co-written more than 330 songs, including many standards. In the pantheon of country music he’s at or near the top. Bob Wills showed the way. Hank Williams looms large, of course, but the poor guy died of drink in the back of a car at age 29. Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings … they shared the road with Willie, and he out-produced and outlasted all of them. Just give Willie the damn crown.

Besides songwriting, Willie is a master interpreter; both sides are in full bloom on the new album. Original tunes — co-written with Nelson’s longtime collaborator and producer Buddy Cannon — include the philosophical nugget “Energy Follows Thought” and the wry “I Don’t Go to Funerals” (tagline: “And I won’t go to mine”).

The album’s covers are equally reflective. While Nelson’s take on the Beatles’ “A Little Help from My Friends” sounds a bit pat (he ain’t no Joe Cocker), his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is hauntingly spot-on, a wry rumination on a long musical journey in its twilight.

A few tracks in, these lines emerge in “Dusty Bottles” (by Jim “Moose” Brown, Scotty Emerick and Don Sampson):

There’s something to be said for gettin’ older
Dusty bottles pour a finer glass of wine
An old beat-up guitar just sounds better
And wisdom only comes with time

Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger, is a Martin N-20 nylon-string model with electronic Baldwin pickups. It’s signed by dozens of friends. In 1969 Willie rescued Trigger from a fire that wiped out his ranch near Nashville — a crisis that helped prompt him to start anew in Austin. He wore a hole in it playing with a flatpick for 50+ years (it was designed with no pickguard, to be played by finger picking). Image: © Lisa S Johnson, 108 Rock Star Guitars.

The music feels snug and familiar, like a well-worn pair of jeans. Willie’s sole instrumental credit: Trigger. This denotes his trademark guitar (named after Roy Rogers’ horse) which he typically records along with his voice in live takes. For backup, Nelson and Cannon have assembled several usual suspects from Willie’s studio Family. (Notably absent is sister and brilliant pianist Bobbie Nelson, who played her final notes on the preceding LP The Willie Nelson Family (2021) before her death in March at 91.)

Due to Covid, many of the album’s parts were recorded remotely and digitally blended. “Yet even with the pandemic-imposed distances that required the musicians to record alone, without the other players to bounce off of,” notes Doug Heselgrave in No Depression, “A Beautiful Time comes off as one of the truest and most intimate albums Nelson has released in some time.”

As part of its comprehensive survey of all things Willie, Texas Monthly ranks 146 albums that Nelson has created or appeared on, placing A Beautiful Time at number 38. I would put it much higher on the list, for its warmth, candor, listenability, and philosophical wisdom.

Yet I’m not quite ready to call this one of Willie’s ground-breaking masterpieces. Those are worthy of discussion, however. Here’s a few favorites.

High-Concept Albums

Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger was his first crossover hit album for Columbia Records. Phases and Stages closed out his time at Atlantic, before its country division was shuttered. Images: amazon.com.

I first laid eyes on Willie Nelson on an outdoor stage at Buffalo Bowl, the college football stadium just outside my hometown of Canyon, TX. It was one of my earliest concerts, in the mid-’70s, and Nelson’s set focused on Red Headed Stranger (1975), his hit LP at the time.

In a piercing blue spotlight, his shaggy red mane and bushy beard shining, Willie sang out the long notes of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and I got the spine-tingling sense of being in the presence of greatness. (As mentioned, I’ve seen him live several times, most recently at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall and The Beacon Theater, but that first cut was the deepest.)

I soon glommed on to Red Headed Stranger — its story cycle about a preacher gone bad, an outcast on the run, resonated with a high-school kid in search of identity. The album’s pace was measured, its themes dark (revenge, murder, isolation), its acoustic arrangements precise but often so spare that execs at Nelson’s new label (Columbia) thought they were demos and asked for more.

But Willie had shrewdly negotiated for creative control, and he stuck to his guns. The “uncommercial” Red Headed Stranger song-set became a blockbuster, going double-platinum and elevating the veteran artist to household fame (it later served as the template for a 1986 movie, starring Nelson, in one of his 30+ screen roles).

I have Willie-fanatic friends who argue that his previous LP Phases and Stages (1974)— a concept album about divorce, with Side One expressing the woman’s view and Side Two the man’s — is actually Nelson’s finest hour on record. Indeed, Texas Monthly gives it the top slot, pointing out that its storyline is entirely self-penned.

Recent close listening reconfirms the brilliance of Phases and Stages — an amazing song cycle, at turns poignant and danceable, its arrangements partly steered by producer Jerry Wexler with studio pros at Muscle Shoals. The signature hit, “Bloody Mary Morning,” should be some kind of anthem. But I still have to give top Willie honors to Red Headed Stranger, because of its outsize presence in my past.

Nelson’s Stardust (1978), a collection of old standards, was seen as a risky move; it went platinum and topped several charts. Later came a nod to a buddy, Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson (1979). Images: amazon.com.

Soulful Standards

Willie was far from the first pop star to mine the Great American Songbook for a retro album (hello, Bing and Frank), but he brought the concept to the masses in the semi-modern era: Stardust (1978) seemed instantly timeless, the kind of record that sounded as cool in the car speakers as Queen or ZZ Top (this was the ’70s) and as smooth on the make-out couch as Linda Ronstadt or Rod Stewart. The album completed Willie’s cycle from journeyman songsmith, writing hits for others, to crossover superstar selling millions playing other people’s tunes.

Then he turned his interpretive lens toward a peer and protégé with Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson (1979). On Willie’s versions of gems like “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” he took a page from Janis Joplin to out-sing the songwriter (given the vocal instruments involved, that’s not much of a stretch).

Willie Nelson’s Across the Borderline featured an all-star cast of collaborators. On Spirit, he used a simple lineup of two guitars, piano, and fiddle. Images: amazon.com.

Middle-Aged Angst

In the early ’90s, Willie’s infamous debt to the IRS — they slapped him with an unpaid bill for 16.7 M — was settled in large part with proceeds from his solo retrospective set, The IRS Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories? (1992). But during that rough patch, his true artistic outlet was Across the Borderline (1993), one of his most emotionally resonant albums.

Here, with producer Don Was at the controls, Nelson relied on the talents of such friends as Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett, and Paul Simon — many of whom joined him in the studio. Willie’s duet with Sinéad O’Connor on Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” out-emoted the original, as both singers seemed on the verge of tears. (O’Connor had recently been booed off the stage at a Dylan tribute concert, after she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live.) Across the Borderline may be Willie’s finest group effort.

He followed this big-gun project with the simple four-piece band setting of Spirit (1996), a quiet masterpiece that got lost in the grunge-pop shuffle of the era. With no surrounding frills, Willie stretched his Trigger-happy chops and riffs, anchored by sister Bobbie’s reassuring piano runs. In 13 original tunes, Willie demonstrated that the composer of “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” hadn’t lost his mojo — but he felt melancholy and bluesy, making this a beautiful bum-out record.

Some 26 years and 28 studio albums later, Willie’s returned to a similar intimate approach with A Beautiful Time. It’s an artistic triumph as well as a nod (but not a concession) to the presence of the grim reaper. To Nelson’s résumé — along with artist, actor, author, activist, town proprietor (he owns Luck, TX), and philanthropist (he co-started Farm Aid) — we can add a bullet point: Stoic Survivor.

Willie for President mural on Austin’s South Congress Avenue, near a row of honky-tonks. Image: Alejandro Gill.

In Austin, Willie’s so popular that there’s an informal campaign to draft him for president. Why not? We’ve already anointed an aging actor, a septuagenarian reality-TV star, and an even older career politician. Willie still has lots of friends and all his faculties (and you know he would legalize weed right off the bat). What could go wrong?

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