Intimations of mortality figure largely, but dance lightly through the songs of A Beautiful Time, Willie Nelson’s 97th studio album, released to coincide with the singer’s 89th birthday this Friday. With song titles like “Live Every Day” and “I Don’t Go to Funerals,” listeners could be forgiven for thinking that Nelson has become obsessed with the grim reaper. Even if that’s true and there’s a worried song playing softly in some corner of Willie’s mind, he never lets on. The warmth, beauty, and good humor that runs through these 14 new recordings assure that A Beautiful Time is never a downer.
As usual, Nelson enlisted the services of Buddy Cannon, his co-conspirator for the last decade or so, to arrange, co-write, and produce the album. As a concession to the times, the songs were scored and recorded remotely by Cannon with Nelson adding vocals and guitar from his home studio in Pedernales, Texas. Yet even with the pandemic-imposed distances that required the musicians, including Nelson’s stalwart harmonica player Mickey Raphael, to record alone, without the other players to bounce off of, A Beautiful Time comes off as one of the truest and most intimate albums Nelson has released in some time.
Nelson’s vocals are as expressive as they ever have been, and the notes he coaxes out of Trigger, his bashed up old Martin N-20 guitar, continue to be refined and stripped down to the bone. And even if one could argue that Nelson’s playing doesn’t carry the sonic depth and innovation he communicated on, say, Teatro or Spirit, careful listening reveals that he’s after something else. The notes are fewer, but every one of them carries a lifetime of experience and emotion.
The title track is as poignant and uplifting an appreciation of a life well lived as has ever been sung. Written for Nelson by Shawn Camp, the song underscores Nelson’s ability to make anything he sings sound like it came from his own life. Similarly, “Dusty Bottles” conveys a lifetime of wisdom in three minutes. With lines like “dusty bottles pour a finer glass of wine / an old beat up guitar just sounds better / and wisdom only comes with time,” it’s a classic that can stand alongside any of his work.
Humor has always been a mainstay in Nelson’s music and “We’re Not Happy (’Til You’re Not Happy)” and “Don’t Touch Me There,” with its predictable double entendres, are both classics in the tradition. And it wouldn’t be a Willie Nelson album without a track like “Leave You With a Smile” that reminds us that no one can deliver a heartfelt lyric like he can.
As always, the album’s cover songs take on new resonance as Nelson’s unique phrasing offers a master class in interpretation. Selections like “With a Little Help from my Friends” and Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” that most of us could live without hearing again transform under his delivery.
A Beautiful Time is a delightful album from beginning to end that assures, to paraphrase Cohen, we’ll be hearing from Nelson “long after he’s gone.”