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REVIEW: Willie Nelson – ‘God’s Problem Child’

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‘Woke up still not dead again today…’

Willie Nelson is 84. Twitter was an invention of people the age of his grandchildren, but now old man Willie has to read his obituary on a too-regular basis thanks to the falsity of the current era.

When he was an outlaw, along with Waylon, Kris and Johnny in the Highwaymen, he stood outside the sleek norms of Nashville, norms he had helped create with songs such as Crazy, On the Road Again and Funny How Time Slips Away. Always on my Mind, which sounds like an idea only a millionaire could have (outlaw sings an Elvis song), was the CMA Song of the Year for TWO YEARS in succession (were there not enough songs to go round back then?) and Willie is now the face of cannabis in the US.

Still touring, still recording and putting out what I make to be his SIXTY-FIRST solo album, one of the surviving outlaws (he and Kris are the only two left) teams up with Buddy Cannon for some fab and fun tunes. Buddy was last heard masterminding the future GRAMMY-Award winning LP Windy City for Alison Krauss, which featured one of Willie’s tunes, I Never Cared for You.

Here Buddy and Willie team up to write seven of the thirteen tracks on this album, which is as brilliant as you would expect it to be. Still Not Dead is one of them, and It Gets Easier is another, all about growing old gracefully but still ‘missing you – that won’t go away’. I love the arrangement, with some magical lap-steel guitar.

True Love (‘You’re worth all the heartaches and I’d do it all again’) shares a shuffle with the best Alison Krauss tunes; Lady Luck, also a majestic Cannon-Nelson co-write, ‘is a stallion tonight/ She smiles on the winners and laughs at the losers’; I Made a Mistake is a plea to the Lord to bring back his baby.

Delete and Fast Forward is the political song released in protest of Donald Trump’s victory in the polls. Dolly Parton should run for President; Willie would obviously be in charge of legalising marijuana! Who knows who’d be in charge of the Federal Reserve? (Not Willie.)

Willie has been going for six decades, and has influenced hundreds of musicians, not least Steve Earle and Aaron Watson. Three of them appear on the spectacular title track, a sort of vocal guitar pull. Tony Joe White, who wrote Rainy Night in Georgia and is a whippersnapper at 73, the late Leon Russell (A Song for You and many more), and former Great Hope Jamey Johnson, who turned his back on the industry and is due appraisal in the post-Stapleton country environment, all take turns to shine on a track written by Jamey and Tony Joe.

The best title to a song is Your Memory Has a Mind of its Own, a traditional ballad done in the Nashville way. The great thing about Willie is that he can straddle mainstream and outlaw, and thus he has directly influenced people like Eric Church, his closest modern equivalent, and Sturgill Simpson.

Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, in recent years, have spearheaded the ‘old bloke looks Death in the eye’ genre of rock album. With a bit of extra twang, Willie’s album (by no means his last, by the way, so we won’t be rolling him up and smoking him for a wee while) is full of meditation. Little House on the Hill is a gospely rollicker of a tune; Old Timer is a modern standard sung beautifully, which one day someone like Thomas Rhett, old and gnarled, will cover on his sixty-first album!

He Won’t Ever Be Gone, the final track, was written for Willie about Merle Haggard, who would have been eighty this year. Merle’s son Ben will be touring Merle’s music this year, with a gig in Gateshead in July, and I am positive when Willie passes on we will all sing the likes of Crazy and On the Road Again as campfire classics well into the twenty-second century.

Jonny Brick

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