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.