- 03 Jul 20
It would make my job a lot easier to just rattle off something about Willie Nelson and how he’s going through a late purple patch with this and his last handful of records, but, when you think about it, what other kind of coloured patch has Nelson ever had? Since he gave Nashville the two fingers and headed for Austin to release the ridiculously laid back Shotgun Willie in 1973, he’s put his name to God knows how many albums and every one I’ve heard –surely no one but Willie himself has heard them all – has had more than enough to recommend it.
I put this one on and I was welling up after about thirty seconds. How about this for a one-two emotional gut punch? ‘First Rose Of Spring’ starts with Willie almost whispering that “the first time that he saw her, he knew everything had changed” over Mickey Raphael’s lonesome harmonica – you couldn’t have a Willie Nelson record without it – and a gently plucked guitar. This is grown up love, the kind that makes your life better for as long as you can hold on to it. The rest of the band come in – brushed drums, bass, and a keening pedal steel, and then Willie lets Trigger have a canter about. It’s perfect, and then heart breaking, when the lyric turns on its head at the song’s end. Nelson follows that with 'Blue Star’, a new song celebrating a love that’s kept going until the end. “When you reach the heavens bright, I’ll be the blue star on you’re right”, “we’ll be back together, out there, drifting,” Willie promises before an electric piano tussles slow and easy with Trigger. Here, hold on a second, there’s something in my eye…
Frankly, he could have stopped there, and that would have been enough, but he keeps going. ‘I’ll Break Out Again Tonight’ is from Merle Haggard’s 1974 album If We Make It Through December, which should be all I need to tell you, as the singer refuses to let the jailhouse cage his heart, “These walls and bars can't hold a dreaming man, so I'll be home to tuck the babies in, they can chain my body but not my mind, and I'll break out again tonight.” Then Toby Keith’s ‘Don’t Let The Old Man In’, which, if it wasn’t written for Nelson, certainly should have been – it was actually written for Clint Eastwood’s 2018 movie The Mule - advises us to “try to love on your wife, and stay close to your friends, toast each sundown with wine, and don’t let the old man in.” The music on both songs isn’t in a hurry, it’ll get where it’s going, all in good time.
Thankfully, Nelson gives my tear ducts a break with the jaunty, slightly jazzy, slightly ‘Winter Wonderland’ aside of ‘Just Bummin’ Around’ which was recorded by Dean Martin, and a host of others. Don’t put the tissues away just yet, mind. Chris Stapleton’s lovely ‘Our Song’ changes its chorus line with a beautifully placed minor chord, while Willie prises the companion who “put him back together again.” Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘We Are The Cowboys’ is elegiac for a type of manliness that has become harder to find, gentlemen – “picking our words so we don’t have to eat them” - rather than braggarts. We’re all the cowboys – “Texicans, Mexicans, Black Men and Jews” – and “it’s everyones job to get the work done” because “the world will breathe easy and the fighting will end when all hunger is gone”. That’s a real man, right there.
‘Stealing Home’ is another remembrance of temps perdu as the family house is sold, and Father Time is softly berated before ‘I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised’ also looks back to good old days, but this time with a honky-tonk grin. ‘Love Just Laughed’ is the other new Nelson song here, and you’ll look long and hard for a better opening line than “She said ‘please, don’t let me go’, I said ‘I’ve got to let you go’, and love just laughed.” You can’t go back, your mistakes have made you who you are - this is a master of the form at work. The sound of Nelson’s Trigger guitar and Raphael’s harmonica melting together is something worth cherishing, and celebrating.
‘Yesterday When I was Young’ was written by Charles Aznavour under the original title ‘Hier Encore’ and was a big country hit for Roy Clark in the late sixties, and its reflection on youth lost is the perfect way to end this record, the kind of song that requires a singer who has lived a full life to carry it, and that’s as true of Nelson as it is of anyone. I’ve made the mistake of referring to previous Nelson records as possible curtain calls, so I won’t do it again, but if – and it’s not an if I’d put money on – this is his adieu then it is a particularly fine one. You can call it country, ‘cause that’s what it is, but this is a record for anyone with a few years under the belt, anyone who’s taken a few knocks but have come to realise that knocks are an essential part of the deal.