At this point, a new record from Willie Nelson almost always elicits the same two-point response:
1) It’s not great.
2) Even though it doesn’t compare to what he released during his creative peak, it’s still Willie. And Willie at his absolute worst is infinitely better than so much of what passes as music these days.
A new release from Willie is almost always a generally enjoyable experience.
In their advance publicity, Legacy Recordings billed Willie's new album, "Heroes" as “his homecoming to Legacy Recordings. No themes or gimmicks to this album, just 13 brand new recordings produced by Buddy Cannon.”
Willie’s last several records have all featured some kind of theme/gimmick: duets, a blues record, a reggae record, classic country covers, jazz records, celebrity producers, etc. Some worked better than others. His “Countryman” reggae album surprisingly blew me away. His “It Always Will Be” album is one of my all-time favorite records. “Run That By Me One More Time”, his duets album with his old friend Ray Price was a solid and enjoyable affair. Ditto for “You Don’t Know Me: Songs of Cindy Walker.” His albums produced by Ryan Adams and Kenny Chesney, however, remain the two exceptions to the “almost always enjoyable” rule.
Willie’s greatest strength and his downfall, at the same time, is his willingness to record almost anything with almost anyone, anytime, anywhere. While this results in some mediocre product, you gotta love a guy who loves music that much. And, as Norwood from Fishbone told me in our interview last week, Willie is basically “living the dream of a child”. If I could spend all of my time making music with my friends, you bet I would.
This album is a family affair, with Willie’s sons Lukas appearing on almost every track. His son, Micah, appears on one. Other guests include Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, and Snoop Dogg.
I first heard “Roll Me Up” a few weeks ago when I saw Willie in concert in St. Louis. It’s a great song; a well-written tune that pokes fun at Willie’s reputation while celebrating his legacy all at once. The version here, though – a collaboration with Johnson, Kristofferson, and Snoop – calls into question the “no themes or gimmicks” claim made by Legacy Recordings.
I braced myself for the worst, but ended up loving it. Snoop actually sings rather than raps (he doesn’t exactly sound “good”, but it is fun). And while I prefer Willie’s solo version I heard live, the version on “Heroes” is a fun take that begs the listener to sing along.
The other standout track for me on “Heroes” is Willie’s cover of Pearl Jam’s beautiful “Just Breathe”, performed with his son Lukas. The first time I heard this track, it brought tears to my eyes. It’s my favorite “latter-day” Pearl Jam song and Willie takes it to a whole other level. Eddie Vedder’s look at a life that is blessed despite bumpy roads is much more poignant when told from the standpoint of a weathered 79-year old.
Another track getting a lot of attention is a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist”. It is one of the better cuts on the album (a straightforward solo rendition), but I’m not a Coldplay fan and am completely unfamiliar with the song, so the juxtaposition of this to the original version is lost on me.
Ultimately, this most likely won’t end up being anyone’s favorite Willie Nelson record, it won’t dent the country charts, and it won’t sell a million copies. There are hits and misses here. In my opinion the album would have benefited from fewer duets. But hearing Willie sing with his old pals Merle, Kris, and Billy Joe will always be special.
Willie Nelson won’t be here forever and he’s one of the last of his kind. His purpose is to make music. And he’s still making new stuff. For us. As I said before, for me it all comes down to the fact that a fair-to-middlin’ Willie Nelson record is almost always enjoyable and almost always better than so many others’ very best. Enjoy his new stuff while its here.
Ryan Mifflin is the host of Dirty Roots Radio, a "Quentin Tarantino-ization of a spaghetti western style old-school record show" featuring renegade country, vintage gospel, raw blues, greasy soul, punk, and funk. Tune in to Dirty Roots Radio every Thursday night from 8 to 10 p.m. (central) on WGRN 89.5 FM. Listen online from anywhere in the world at www.wgrn.net.
Mifflin blogs about music and life at OTIS RYAN PRODUCTIONS