Reviewing a Willie Nelson album is like describing to someone a visit you’ve made to the Grand Canyon. Sure there are the facts and impressions but the shear majesty of what you’re in the presence of something larger than life anit can bow you into awe. But here goes…
Nelson has always been a serial collaborator. The Texas Yoda has cut tracks with so many people he’s become a musical Keven Bacon. He’s shared the studio with his country contemporaries Waylon, Merle, Ray to genre-crossers Julio Iglesias and Phish, but Willie is no longer just a country artist. Like Ray Charles, another of his collaborators, he’s jettisoned his original genre and elevated himself to simply American music.
This studio gregariousness shows that Willie is not willing to sit on a laureled pedestal. He is generous with his studio and stage time and willing to lend a little Texas outlaw mojo to others. His legacy is so firmly entrenched in history he seems to feel he can work with whomever,and do do whatever, strikes his fancy. This has resulted from the inspired to the perplexing, but it’s hardly ever boring.
At nine Willie’s new album, ‘Heroes,’ ups the collaboration ante, and sometime within a single song. The count is four,including Willie, in the post-mortem ode to herb “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” The song’s title was was originally the album’s title until Willie put the kibosh on the inevitable Walmart boycott. Willie might be an outlaw, but he’s also always been a shrewd businessman. On the song Willie seems to be having fun performing with his brother of the weed Snoop Dogg, along with a bemused-sounding Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson, this collection get’s my vote for a “High” way men tour.
A Last of the Breed mini reunion occurs with Merle Haggard on a beautifully grizzled “Horse Called Music,” originally from the criminally overlooked 1989 album of the same title. Ray Price reprises Floyd Tillman’s classic “Cold War With You” with Willie and Lukas Nelson to suave cowboy effect.
The album’s title, Heroes, is a nod to the performers on the album as well as the musical influences that Willie has always honored. One clear influence on Willie Nelson, Bob Wills and the Western Swing genre is well represented with spirited renditions of Will’s “My Window Faces The South” and “Home In San Antone.”
Amongst the crowded studio the real purpose of “Heroes” appears to be a father’s introducing his son to a larger fan-base. Lukas and his band, The Promise of the Rea,l have been opening and backing for Willie for a couple of year as they honed the craft. But this is not crass nepotism as Lukas contributes a couple of the best songs on the album with “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her” and “The Sound of Your Memory,” His pleasing vocal style is somewhere between his old man’s phrasing and Jimmie Dale Gilmore keen. Also, he’s a solid guitarist and his Stratocaster flourishes provides a contemporary counterpart to Willie’s cowboy-jazz Trigger.
A contemporary theme runs through a selection of covers. An inspired, palatial version of Pearl Jam’s rumination on mortality “Just Breathe” takes on deeper level of poignancy as the song is sung with his son Lukas, and Willie approaches his 80th birthday. Tom Waits’ quasi-gospel “Come On Up To The House” features Mickey Raphael’s excellent and understated harmonica work cultivated from being with Willie for many years. The song aligns dutifully with the original and also features Lucas and the ubiquitous Sheryl Crow, who is serviceable if unnecessary. Willie’s solo turn on Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” first seen on a Chipotle Super Bowl commercial, charms me into enjoying (okay, appreciating) the song.
The Willie-penned title song is said to be about fellow outlaw Billy Joe Shaver (in some cases literally), who appears here with a contemporary rabble-rouser of sorts, Jamey Johnson. This 4/4 waltz is a sentimental reminiscence of a musician who used to be “king of the bars,” but it just as well could be a testament to the current sad state of country music.
“Heroes” is an uneven affair. Like a ramshackle late-night guitar pull fueled by intoxents both legal and not, it’s a lot of fun and done with love of music, mutual respect and a seeming sense of harmonious happenstance sorely missing image-obsessed music industry.
Here’s to Willie being Willie.