Austin360 On The Record: Willie Nelson salutes Frank Sinatra with 'That's Life'
Austin360 On The Record is a weekly roundup of new, recent and upcoming releases by local and Austin-associated recording artists.
Willie Nelson, "That's Life" (Legacy). Closing in on 90 — he’ll turn 88 in two months — Austin’s greatest musical icon has hit upon a couple of deep grooves lately. Albums largely addressing Nelson’s encroaching mortality head-on (including 2018’s “Last Man Standing” and 2019’s “Ride Me Back Home”) have shared space with tributes to some of his greatest influences.
Four of the nine albums he’s released in the past five years have revisited songs either written or immortalized by fellow 20th-century masters Frank Sinatra, Ray Price and George & Ira Gershwin. You could call that a formula, but if so, it’s a formula that has resonated with his followers. Two of the three tributes preceding this one won Grammys, including 2018’s “My Way,” Nelson’s first salute to the songs of Sinatra and clearly a close companion to this set.
“That’s Life” picks up where “My Way” left off. Nelson again enlisted both Buddy Cannon — who’s produced most of his albums over the past dozen years — and longtime Lyle Lovett pianist Matt Rollings as co-producers. It might seem that the material on “That’s Life” could have been captured in the same sessions as “My Way,” but Nelson verified in a telephone interview on Friday that the albums came from two different sessions. (Jazz singer Diana Krall’s duet vocal on “I Won’t Dance” was recorded remotely during the pandemic.)
A lengthy essay by writer Mikal Gilmore that Nelson’s record label commissioned for the album sheds light on these recordings, and on his relationship with Sinatra. Nelson told Gilmore that his initial exposure to Sinatra songs came in the 1940s, when his older sister, Bobbie, was playing classics like “Stardust” and “Moonlight in Vermont” on the piano. Gilmore also retells the story of a mid-1980s Las Vegas double-bill featuring the two legends, during which Sinatra said of Nelson: “He can sing my stuff, but I don’t know if I can sing his.”
Further illumination came from Rollings, who says that a fundamental premise of the sessions was to draw out the personality of Willie’s phrasing so that the songs would stand apart.
“We never talked about sticking close to the originals,” Rollings told Gilmore. “I listened closely to everything, but I’m not a fan of being derivative. I wanted to find how a song was written harmonically, what was the original intention, because a melody can work over a lot of different chords. Once I had that in my head, I felt we had license to make it our own.”
There’s crossover with “Summertime,” Nelson’s Grammy-winning 2016 tribute to the Gershwins, in the opening track, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which George & Ira Gershwin wrote in the 1930s. It’s a playful tune, as are many of the tracks here, notably Frank Loesser’s “Luck Be a Lady” and the duet with Krall, its whimsy accentuated by a charming animated video that features, among other things, Nelson riding an ostrich.
But there’s also more contemplative material. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” a mid-1950s lovelorn ballad written by David Mann & Bob Hilliard, gets to the heart of the ennui Sinatra captured so well. Even better is Larry Conley & Willard Robison’s late-1920s gem “Cottage for Sale,” which sparkles with richly sad but beautiful string arrangements.
Other highlights come from the songbooks of Cole Porter (“I've Got You Under My Skin”) and Gene Austin (the album-closing “Lonesome Road.”) And then there’s the title track, which sounds as lived-in for Willie as it did for Frank, punctuated by a mid-song solo from Nelson’s longtime harmonica sidekick, Mickey Raphael. “Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race,” Willie sings, with a lifetime of experience to back him up.
In Gilmore’s essay, co-producer Cannon offers what may be the key to not only the way Nelson sings, but to his entire career as a songwriter and performer. “If I had to describe Willie Nelson’s voice in one word,” Cannon says, “it would be: freedom.”
Here’s the lyric video for the title track:
These Fine Moments, “Season 10.” So named because the record marks a decade that Hilary Kaufmann and Robert Watts have been making music together, “Season 10” finds the pair working with their longtime producer, Mark Hallman. Their folk-pop melodies and rich vocal harmonies benefit not only from Hallman’s multi-instrumentalist additions and steady hand at the controls, but also from contributions by two fellow pop music aces: Austin guitarist Andre Moran, who appears on two songs, and Ken Stringfellow, co-leader of Seattle alt-pop band the Posies, who played on the tracks “Sensation of Flying” and “Million to One.” Record-release livestream 6 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 28, via one2onebar.com. Here’s the video for “Sensation of Flying”:
Deer Fellow, “Words Unsaid” EP. Violinist/pianist Alyssa Kelly and guitarist Matt Salois met at an open mic a few years back and released a handful of singles from 2016 to 2019, building to this four-song EP. Theirs is a subtle but captivating brand of indie-folk, with great care given to the production and arrangements, especially the sublime placement of Kelly’s graceful violin contributions. Salois takes the lead vocal on “Each Night” and “If You Don’t Lie,” with Kelly singing lead on “Runaround” and “Let It Breathe.” Her voice is warmer and more soulful; his is cooler and more measured. They blend well together, especially on the harmonies at the core of “Let It Breathe.” The lyrics largely focus on relationships but are mysterious enough to let listeners find their own meanings in the songs. Keep an eye on this duo; they have a keen sense of songcraft that could propel them to great heights. Socially distanced record-release show Friday, Feb. 26, in Lone Star Court’s outdoor pavilion. Here’s “Let It Breathe”:
John Bridges, "Save the Paper." The debut single from the American-Statesman's editor, whose last day at the paper is today, was actually written several years ago, back when the presses were still rolling in the Statesman building. The paper's printed elsewhere now, which makes his new video for the song, delivered from the empty press room, poignant and bittersweet: "They’re going to tear down the press in the name of progress, or for some condos with some really awesome lakefront views." Bridges joined the Statesman's news copy desk in 1988 and went on to lead several departments before becoming editor a couple of years ago. A happy-hour gig at the Salt Lick may be in the works.
MARCH 5: Graham Wilkinson, “Cuts So Deep”
MARCH 12: Blue Water Highway, “Paper Airplanes”
MARCH 19: Nuevo, self-titled (Nine Mile)
MARCH 24: Leti Garza, “Borderland” EP
MARCH 26: Armadillo Paradox, “Out of Gas in Oil Country”
APRIL 2: Zach Person, self-titled (Blackdenim)
APRIL 2: Joe Barksdale, “Omari”
APRIL 2: Shakey Graves, “Roll the Bones X” 10th-anniversary reissue edition (Dualtone)
APRIL 9: Balmorhea, “The Wind” (Deutsche Grammophon)
APRIL 23: Danny Golden, “Changes” EP
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