Willie and the women
Did Willie Nelson ever encounter a female singer with whom he didn’t think he could bring off a passable duet? I very much doubt it. His new album, To All the Girls…, is full of successful new collaborations with Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne and a dozen others. It can’t fail, and it doesn’t.
My all-time favourite Nelson album is Stardust (1978), which I’d class with Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely among the most exalted recitals of the great American songbook. My second favourite is Across the Borderline (1993), in which he tackled standards of more recent vintage from the pens of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt and others with equal success; maybe its most striking track is Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up”, in which Willie and Sinead O’Connor sing the parts originally recorded by Gabriel and Kate Bush. Now Willie, who turned 80 in April, might just have presented me with a new candidate for third favourite.
If there’s nothing adventurous about To All the Girls…, that’s in no way to the new album’s discredit. Produced by Buddy Cannon, it’s a spare, unassuming collection of fine songs performed by terrific singers working in a sensitive environment. Willie’s voice, as ever, is the essence of understatement, as comfortable as a much-washed raw cotton shirt. The arrangements represent the essence of restraint and economy: a steel guitar here, a Hammond organ there, a hint of strings or harmonica, all subordinate to Willie’s unmistakeable gut-string guitar. It’s the pattern set by Booker T Jones on Stardust 35 years ago, and it can’t be beaten.
The highlights include Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” with Cash, Waylon Jennings’s “She Was No Good For Me” with Miranda Lambert, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dry Lightning” with Harris and the imperishable “Always on My Mind” (by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson) with Carrie Underwood. Norah Jones does beautifully with Willie’s “Walkin'” (containing one of my favourite openings: “After carefully considering the whole situation / I stand with my back to the wall…”), Mavis Staples manoeuvres Nelson into a slightly funkier area on Bill Withers’ gorgeous “Grandma’s Hands”, and Paula Nelson has the good fortune to be featured on a lovely version of John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”. The surprise for me is Lily Meola, a young Hawaiian singer who sounds as perfect partner as any on Willie’s “Will You Still Remember Mine”, a sultry last waltz on which a six-decade age gap is closed to nothing.
But the one I can’t get out of my head is “No Mas Amor”, another Willie song, on which he’s joined by the divine Krauss and a mariachi trumpet: there’s almost nothing to it, but it won’t go away. Just like the whole album, which is likely to remain close to the top of the pile for as long as there’s a pile to be close to the top of.
* The photograph of Willie Nelson is from the cover of To All the Girls… There’s a rather sweet seven-minute promo video here.
** An early version of this piece credited Willie as the writer of “Always on My Mind”. Thanks go to Phil Shaw for putting me straight.
You don’t care for the 1998 ‘Teatro’ with Daniel Lanois’ atmospherics, Emmylou Harris and Brad Mehldau?
I did, but I haven’t listened to it in years. Must go and dig it out. Thanks.
I buy every Willie Nelson release, it’s the law round here. I once wrote a song, co-written with Andy Paley, but never released, called ‘There Should Be A New Willie Nelson (It’s nearly eleven o’clock)’… I’ll go down to my record dealer, see if he’s got it in stock, it’s hard to keep up, the way he pumps ’em out, they no longer come as a shock, there should be a new Willie Nelson, it’s nearly eleven o’clock.’ Etc.
Sounds great. Andy Paley — what a great fellow. Wish I still had my Sidewinders LP with that wonderful song “Rendezvous”. Back in the ’70s he presented me with a cassette containing the Inspirations’ “What Am I Gonna Do With You (Hey Baby)” — now possibly my all-time favourite girl group record — and Maureen Gray’s “Dancing the Strand”. And he worked so hard on that lovely first Brian Wilson solo album — the “Love and Mercy” one.
Really enjoyed this, Richard, and the new disc sounds tempting. There have been so many of them, with some experiments that work, and others that are just stocking fillers. I’ve never got around to Stardust, which sounds daft I know… but I was lucky that New Zealand’s greatest Austin-style country singer Al Hunter told me 30 years ago about Willie’s 1974 concept album “Phases and Stages”. I was surprised you didn’t mention it. One of his few Atlantic albums, It was recorded the year before the lauded ‘Red Headed Stranger’, another concept album of great consequence though it rarely comes off my shelf. (Having said that, hearing Willie’s sister Bobbie play the piano instrumental ‘Denver’ from RHS live in New Orleans made me spontaneously burst into tears.) ‘Phases’ isn’t so sparse – it was produced by Jerry Wexler, who, of course, recorded it in Muscle Shoals with their mostly white R&B players, with great string arrangements. There is plenty of space,and the arrangements and players are empathetic to the very real situations described in the “concept” – a break up, alternating from the male and female point of view. The imagery is startlingly succinct and clear sighted.. “It’s a Bloody Mary Morning, she left me without warning / sometime in the night …” and that wonderful couplet you quote above, “After carefully considering the whole situation / I stand with my back to the wall…” And so many others.
John Morthland described it best in his terrific post-70s Austin consumer’s guide “The Best of Country Music” (Doubleday/Dolphin, 1984), a book of such astute judgement it’s essential for anyone wanting to explore pre-Garth Brookes. Hopefully he’ll indulge me this cut and paste:
Willie Nelson: Phases and Stages (Atlantic).
Though Shotgun Willie was supposed to be the album that freed
Willie Nelson from the Nashville assembly line, it turned out to be a
slapdash affair. But on Phases and Stages, the 1974 follow-up, Willie
turned the trick.
Nearly everything about the album represents a departure. It was
recorded at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, using primarily the same session
musicians who cut much of the great soul music of the late sixties and
early seventies; it was produced by Jerry Wexler, who made his name
working with R & B and soul artists from the fifties and sixties. The
album is also rife with contradictions; it’s got more jazz inflections than
anything Nelson had done, yet it’s also true to his Texas country roots
(he was born in Abbott in 1933). Finally, this is a concept album that
sounds good whether you’re listening to the words or not.
Not that the words are anything to be ashamed of. The songs are all
originals, and this album represents the last songwriting jag for Willie,
who became so popular as an artist that he quit writing. The concept is a
simple one, dealing with the end of a marriage. Side one is from the
woman’s point of view; it opens with her expressing disgust with the
marriage and then follows her as she disavows her husband and returns
to her mother. At the end of the side, she’s contemplating a new romance.
Side two tells the man’s story as he comes home, sinks deeper
into misery at being left, and finally starts pulling himself together.
Loss, guilt, self-pity, disillusionment, being too messed up to think
straight, let alone act sensibly: These are common C & W themes, but
handled uncommonly well. It figures that the oft-divorced Nelson
would get the man’s story down better, and most of the songs on that
side (“Bloody Mary Morning,” ” I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone,”
“Heaven and Hell,” “Pick Up the Tempo”) have indeed become standards.
But his fed-up woman is more well rounded than you might
expect, too, so Willie must have done his share of listening. As he
himself has noted, his songs express only surface thoughts—but they
have an immediacy that cuts right to the bone. Look at how few words
he needs to fully convey the woman’s rejuvenation: “Down at the
corner beer joint/Dancing to the rock and roll/Her jeans fit a little bit
tighter than they did before.”
Wexler’s production is appropriately terse, allowing the songs to go
directly to the listener. For the first time, we hear Willie’s songs as he
most likely heard them in his head, without the strings and background
choirs and other overdubs. But when he wants, Wexler can still haul out
the extras; for ” I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone,” he has Mike Lewis
whip up the kind of big, swelling string arrangements that used to
engulf the Mr. Pitifuls of soul music. This is one of the few such string
arrangements in all of C & W—still—that isn’t hack work.
The Muscle Shoals pickers may usually play soul music, but they’re
mostly white boys themselves, and they have no trouble fitting themselves
around Willie. They’ve played so little country in the past that it
all still sounds fresh to them, and they make it fresh to us, too. They’re
kept in line by two of country music’s foremost instrumentalists; Johnny
Gimble, the Texas swing fiddler, and John Hughey, Conway Twitty’s
steel player. In addition to Willie’s own gut-string guitar, Pete Carr and
Fred Carter, Jr., of Muscle Shoals provide stinging dobros and snappy
guitar lines that lend jazz flavor to songs like “Sister’s Coming Home/
Down at the Corner Beer Joint,” which sound like a face-off between
Floyd Tillman and Symphony Sid, as well as “No Love Around,” which
sounds like a field holler. This jazz influence, heretofore a well-kept
secret of Willie’s, is his way of updating western swing instead of aping
it, and shows off his uncanny ability to move forward by reaching backward.
The solos spun off in “Bloody Mary Morning” come out of bluegrass,
but also anticipate the “hot group” Willie would assemble nearly
a decade later for Somewhere Over the Rainbow, his tribute to French
guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Willie’s voice is the glue holding together these seemingly disparate
elements—flat and just behind the beat, it’s so monochromatic that
the tiniest inflections serve to open up each song. Pretty dramatic stuff
for a guy who supposedly can’t sing