Willie Nelson – Remember Me, Vol. 1 (R&J, 2011)
In contrast to the deeper picks of last year’s Country Music, this year’s model has Nelson working through some of the most famous tunes in country music’s chart history. Included are signature hits from Ernest Tubb (“Remember Me”), Merle Travis (“Sixteen Tons”), George Jones (“Why Baby Why”), Hank Snow (“I’m Movin’ On”), Porter Wagoner (“A Satisfied Mind”), and many others. Nelson teams with Nashville session players and producer James Stroud (the ‘J’ in the R&J record label) to record surprisingly straightforward and twangy covers of fourteen selections. The singularity of Nelson’s artistry allows these simple recitations to escape the shadows cast by the original hits; the instant identifiably of his voice is all that’s needed to make these songs his own. The result finds Nelson easily sharing the stage with both the songs and their famous originators, as if he were a cabaret singer taking a stroll through the great American songbook. It’s just that the songbook in question is mostly Nashville’s rather than Tin Pan Alley’s.
The song list selects heavily from the 1950s, but dips back into the mid-40s and forward to Vern Gosdin’s 1989 hit “That Just About Does It.” The one pick from outside the country charts is Rosemary Clooney’s 1954 pop chart-topper “This Old House.” Nelson and Stroud set the latter into the song list with a light swing arrangement that’s half way between Clooney’s original and Shakin’ Stevens’ 1981 rockabilly cover. The swinging continues with Tex Williams’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” and Bob Wills’ “Roly Poly,” providing balance to ballads that include a wonderfully idiosyncratic take on Ray Price’s “Release Me.” It’s a mark of Nelson’s stature and impact on country music that his unique styling provides inspiration, rather than a challenge, for the assembled pickers. This is a fine, easy-going collection of covers, as much about Nelson as it is about the hits. The sessions turned out enough finished works for a second volume, which is expected next year.