Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time: Album Review

More stunning home-smoked philosophies from the great great granddaddy of American outlaw music, Willie Nelson.

Release date: 29th April 2022

Label: Sony Legacy

Format: CD / Vinyl / Digital

It isn’t just any old day that Willie Nelson has chosen to drop his 72nd LP, more if you count collaborations and live outings, it also happens to be his 89th birthday. 89? How can that possibly be so? Hell, for sure he is older than most still playing 100 plus shows a year, and his features aren’t exactly Cliff Richard freaky clean, but that makes it his 90th year, his 10th decade.

OK, glad we got that’s that traditional and reflex response out the way, praise be etc the fact he can even tie his own shoelaces, even supposing he can, a well-honed boot seeming more his style. Because this review is not a testimony to the life-affirming properties of Willie’s Reserve, his branded cannabis and CBD oil company, legal across many US states, but to the sheer quality of the song, the singing of them and his guitar play. Having been only lured into his peculiar charms for the last 30 odd years of his career, I can honestly say this is his best recording since 1993’s Across The Borderline, the record that dragged me on board, never to leave. When you consider it was but his 40th, that’s quite some claim. So, hear me out.

For some time he has stuck to the same strategies, using his own tried and tested team of individuals to play with him. Songs are a mix of new songs, largely co-writes with Buddy Cannon, his partner in pen for some few years now, some like-minded compositions snapped up from local talent, and covers, often songs well past their sell-by-date and past any particular welcome, to which he can apply his gift of alchemy, making them all sound his own, or, if not written by him, written for him. Musicians remain his largely trusted allies, led by harmonica wiz and bandleader, Mickey Raphael. There is also some palpable poignancy as to the absence of Nelson’s elder sister, Sister Bobbie, a member of his family band these past 40 years and who died barely 2 months ago.

The first track is the pre-released single, I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die, a song by Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton, that effortlessly fuses the concepts, and not a little resonance of Crowell’s Till I Gain Control Again and old staple, Always On My Mind, both of which have been, of course, covered, magisterially, by Willie. A slow waltz, with impeccably brushed drums and string bass, weepy honky tonk piano and quietly howling steel, Raphael’s harmonica has all the lustre of a high plains drifter. Trigger, Nelson’s sidekick of a battered guitar, is on fine form, as is the man himself, his phrased vocals sliding everywhere, and else, that they should. This is followed by the first of the Nelson/Cannon compositions, My Heart Was A Dancer, a wistful nostalgia fest, dreaming of dusky senoritas and tex-mex bar/cantinas (or that’s what it said to me!) Energy Follows Through, by the same team, is the first of several songs that impart nuggets from the table and experience of the ageing musician. Corny and patronising in any other hands, it is completely convincing in the voice of the author. I have seen this described as cosmic philosophy, and that is a perfect description.

Dreaming’ Again is another song that harks back to a wilder and livelier past, one that accepts the ravages of time with a weary acceptance. With Trigger picking out a ragged melody, the song isn’t a million miles away from the Jim Croce song of the same name, but was actually written by one of Carlene Carter’s ex-husbands who wasn’t Nick Lowe. One of the album’s finest now raises its head, another from Nelson/Cannon, the wondrously forward-looking I Don’t Go To Funerals, which succinctly states the master’s view on such occasions: “I won’t be at mine!” A mischievous lyric propels the song forward, the band kicking up more steam than they have had to thus far. Reminiscent in a way of Christy Moore’s Lisdoonvarna, with a litany of musical reminisces, it almost makes you want to bring on the day. But not that much. A Beautiful Time, the first of a couple of Shawn Camp songs, sees a change in the band, if retaining Raphael. It is a song of the road, rose-tinting to the max the travelling show experience, the arrangement now more barroom than campfire. Amy Nelson, I think, adds some harmony vocals to her fathers, any bvs elsewhere provided by Melonie Cannon . By the same writer, We’re Not Happy (Till You’re Not Happy) is one of those classically constructed country and western songs, reliant on wordplay, and that took me several listens to understand, assuming I did. Mind you, I don’t go much in for backroom poker sessions. Possibly the slightest of the record’s offerings, it is nonetheless a pleasant break from the heavier stuff that may seem, to the young, as a form of senior skewed proselytising.

Dusty Bottles is straight back into maudlin central, again managing, almost counter-intuitively to be entirely convincing. The platitudes sound so pure Willie, so it is a surprise that this a song actually by his organist, Jim “Moose” Brown, with his wheezing chords of the chapel underpinning the harmonica and steel moans: “Dusty bottles pour a finer glass of wine.” Indeed, they do, provided you catch them ahead the turn. Me And My Partner, a Ken Lambert song, is then just a little too saccharine for me, an example of when the vintage maybe has gone off. So thanks be that the next song appears next, even if it too epitomises the overbearing mood and sentiments of the record, if, this time, with a good deal more deprecation. It is Tower Of Song, the magnificent Leonard Cohen ode to being an older minstrel. What is remarkable is that, despite however brilliant Len’s own renditions were and are, the song now seems to have found its natural vessel, and it is hard to believe Nelson was not in Cohen’s mind. With few variations on the more familiar version, a special mention must go to the shimmery, spooky steelplay of Mike Johnson. This song will feature in many a future shortlist of Willie’s best covers, a shortlist of some considerable length already; I think it has overtaken his and Sinead O’Connors version of Peter Gabriel’s Don’t Give Up in mine.

Live Every Day and, not the Tubes song, Don’t Touch Me There are the final pair of Nelson/Cannon songs, the first more sage advice for the young, or, at least those old enough to appreciate they could possibly not be young at some indiscernible future day. “Live every day like it was your last one, and one day you’re gonna be right“. Ouch. Oh, and it is his heart you don’t touch, for the 2nd, in case you were wondering, being a plaintive post heartbreak lament, the other, the more honest side, of She Still Thinks I Care, which, of course, inevitably and unsurprisingly, he has covered too. Then the one, if I am honest, I was dreading, a version of With A Little Help From My Friends, a little iffy about the prudence of covering such a song. And yes, whilst clearly more Ringo than Joe, it’s actually OK, carried off, again, by Raphael’s jaunty harmonica, almost Meet Me On The Corner/Lindisfarnesque, and Nelson’s idiosyncratic and fractured phrasing. So, a win, and more than on points.

To close comes a relatively simple ditty, effectively so, dripping in pathos. Leaving You With A Smile. Is it the end, could he be saying goodbye? Impossible to read the messages, bearing also in mind his last 3 releases have included similar songs, also suggestive of a parting any time now. Written by Buddy Cannon, this time with two others, including Bobby Terry, the electric guitarist throughout this project, it is a charming song and very redolent of, second mention, Nick Lowe’s mellower canon.

Is that it? Well, he has tour dates lined up that take him through September, so I guess he is hoping not. As am I. It would be lovely if this release could see him have a further late blooming. Vera Lynn was 92 when her last album of new material hit the charts, so Willie has a wee way to go, but, hey, fingers crossed.

Here’s the opening track and single:

Willie Nelson: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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