Willie Nelson keeps on rolling at 89 with new album 'A Beautiful Time'
As Willie Nelson turns 89 this week, let's look back at what may be the most remarkable decade of records ever for an 80-something artist.
For starters, there's the sheer quantity. Nelson released "Heroes" in May 2012, two weeks after he turned 80, and 16 more studio albums have followed over nine years. Far from slowing down as he's gotten older, Willie has kept up this pace for years: He released 14 studio albums in both his 60s and his 70s, after issuing 17 in his 50s. Only in his 40s, years that included his biggest-selling albums, did he release more, with a total of 21 studio albums.
The records of Willie's 80s also been remarkably varied. They've included tributes to Frank Sinatra and the Gershwins, a duets collection, one last collaboration with Merle Haggard, and several family affairs made with his late sister Bobbie and four of his children. But quite a few have been "normal" albums — just Willie and producer Buddy Cannon mixing songs they'd recently written with others drawn from a variety of sources.
"A Beautiful Time" falls into that category, and it proves both Nelson and Cannon still have a lot left in the tank as songwriters and studio partners. There's five Nelson/Cannon originals here, extending a creative relationship that bloomed in the 2010s (most notably on 2018's "Last Man Standing," for which the pair penned all 11 tracks).
But they're also still on the lookout for songs by other writers that are well-suited to Willie's persona. They found some ringers this time, including "I'll Love You Till the Day I Die," a Rodney Crowell/Chris Stapleton co-write that neither of them have yet recorded. An unrequited love song for the ages, it's an arresting album-opener that signals the depth and quality of what follows.
Also of special note is the title track. Whether renowned Nashville musician Shawn Camp wrote it with Nelson in mind, it fits like a glove with Willie's "On the Road Again" personality. The narrator isn't as accomplished as Nelson — he's "travelin' across Texas in an old station wagon" rather than a bus — but it's clear Willie identifies, and remembers his days of touring on a smaller scale. "If I ever get old, I'll still love the road," Willie sings, like his younger self predicting his own future.
The song also fits into Nelson's recent willingness to forthrightly address the finality of life. "When the last song's been played/ I'll look back and say/ I sure had a beautiful time," he muses in the chorus, knowing his time will come sooner than later.
That understanding carries into the Nelson/Cannon original tunes as well — particularly "I Don't Go to Funerals," which codifies Willie's thoughts about somber services into two-and-a-half minutes of good-time honky-tonk. "Those who've gone before me will have my place in line," he figures. "But I don't go to funerals, and I won't be at mine."
There's similar philosophizing on "Live Every Day," which captures the classic "carpe diem" spirit while acknowledging that the clock is ticking. "Live every day like it was your last one," Willie sings, "and one day you're gonna be right." They toss in a little bit of "do unto others" advice for good measure: "Treat everyone like you want to be treated/ See how that changes your life."
The non-original material falls into two camps. Most are songs that haven't been recorded or are little-known, but there are two widely known tunes by major songwriters. Nelson pays homage to Leonard Cohen with "Tower of Song," dipping the Canadian poet's timeless tune into Texas twang with pedal steel and harmonica licks. Less effective but still welcome is the Lennon/McCartney classic "With a Little Help From My Friends," which feels more by-the-numbers but still works if only because Nelson has always valued those friends who help him get by (and, uh, get high).
For those who'd like to look back as well as forward, "VMP Anthology: The Story of Willie Nelson," a box set released last month by Vinyl Me Please, features seven albums touching on five decades of Nelson's career, starting with 1965's "Country Willie" and ending with 2012's "Heroes." Also included are the 1970s albums "Yesterday's Wine," "Red Headed Stranger" and "Stardust," plus 1982's "Always on My Mind" and 1993's "Across the Borderline." The set also includes a booklet with liner notes, photos and lyrics, and there's an accompanying podcast series.
And speaking of podcasts: Texas Monthly's John Spong recently created "One By Willie," which features stories about Nelson and interviews with some of his collaborators. The third season launched this month with an episode featuring Kacey Musgraves. Spong will be at Waterloo Records at 5 p.m. Friday as part of a release-day listening-party for "A Beautiful Time."