Willie Nelson has spent his 80s so far doing what he’s always done — just being Willie Nelson, which is more than any of the rest of us can muster. Since 2012, he’s released 13 albums, an average of two per year, all with the help of Buddy Cannon as producer and co-writer. He started his own line of recreational marijuana, Willie’s Reserve. He has a starring role in the film Waiting for the Miracle to Come, which was released on his birthday this year. In addition, he continues to tour and, in fact, heads up the traveling caravan that is the Outlaw Music Festival, now in its third year. At 86, Willie Nelson isn’t slowing down for anyone.
Now his latest release, Ride Me Back Home, is being touted as the final album in a trilogy that began with 2017’s powerful God’s Problem Child and continued with the even better Last Man Standing the following year. (Of course, these releases are separate from Nelson’s stellar tributes to Sinatra, Ray Price, and Gershwin — all released since 2016.) Where Child was mostly somber and reflective (save for the hilarious latter-day anthem “Still Not Dead”) and Last Man was more humorous and upbeat while seeming to give mortality the middle finger, Ride Me Back Home finds Nelson in a more serious mood with an intent throughout to make things right. From a masterful take on Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes” to Skip Denenberg and (Nelson’s longtime bass player who passed away in 2014) Bee Spears’ “Nobody’s Listening,” Nelson is concerned with the forgotten, the rejected, the overlooked. This compassion is most evident from the album’s first song and title track.
“Ride Me Back Home” addresses the more than 60 horses Nelson rescued from imminent slaughter and placed on his sprawling ranch in Luck, Texas. Neighbor and Nashville Songwriting Hall-of-Famer Sonny Throckmorton was so moved by the sight of all those horses and Nelson’s benevolence that he and his daughter Debby, along with Joe Manual and Lucinda Hinton, penned the song from Nelson’s point of view, and Nelson delivers it with true love and compassion.
A song as personal as Guy Clark’s “My Favorite Picture of You” — about Clark’s wife, Susanna — would be off-limits or at least too daunting for most to attempt, yet Nelson’s deep and natural gift for empathy somehow makes the song universal as well as an homage to one of the great songwriters of our time.
Cannon’s work with Nelson over the past decade has come closer to recapturing the magic of those classic ’70s albums with the Family Band (when Nelson was producing himself) than anyone else before. This is achieved both by using a very small group of studio musicians and allowing the space between the notes to become an instrument unto itself. Consider the sparse, bluesy “Seven Year Itch”: Over upright bass, brushed snare, tremolo electric guitar, Mickey Raphael’s inimitable harmonica, and a few flourishes from Trigger, Nelson relates a classic blues-brag of how he had the seven year itch “but scratched it out in three.” His vocal is barely above a whisper throughout the track, yet it’s at its most powerful, playful, and expressive on the album.
Revisiting one of Nelson’s classic deep cuts, “Stay Away From Lonely Places” (originally released on his final RCA album, 1972’s The Words Don’t Fit the Picture), his voice is in full croon, yet it finds added gravitas due to years of experience, warning of the pain and frustration that comes from dealing with loneliness while trying to get back on your feet.
The mood lightens with the help of sons Lukas and Micah, who back up dad on Mac Davis’ classicly clueless “It’s Hard to Be Humble” that can’t help but invoke thoughts of the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The only misstep is a cover of Billy Joel’s soft rock staple “Just the Way You Are,” which harkens back to the over-produced Willie Nelson albums of the mid-1980s. The arrangement is just too straight, too stilted, too slick. Nelson’s at his best when the music is able to breathe and he can play around with the melody, stretching the meter to its breaking point, and most of Ride Me Back Home does just that, while reminding us once again that another day with Willie Nelson in the world is another day to rejoice.