Willie Nelson made his near-death-experience album a while ago. He released “Tougher Than Leather” in 1983, so we are nearly 40 years past Nelson’s album about almost dying, a conceptual work informed by a collapsed lung in Hawaii. He was at the time a youthful 50.
Nelson has always dealt with time differently than the rest of us, as he moves along in his own peculiar way. He turns 89 on April 29, which isn’t one of those multiple-of-five birthdays our culture typically trumpets. But then, Nelson doesn’t play by our arbitrary rules regarding time. So this is a “Happy Birthday” wish to a guy who would record “Happy Birthday” in a way nobody else think to do.
More than any other popular vocal musician, Nelson has always made me think about time itself: his weird phrasing is a perpetual tortoise/hare game with a song’s beat; his Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar-playing mixes notes allowed to reverberate and others delivered in a flurry. His affinity for a good song operates independently of time and trend. He’ll sing it the same whether it’s from the 1920s or the 2020s. Nelson operates in an environment of his own creation.
MORE FROM ANDREW DANSBY: Some of the best bands skip Houston in favor of Dallas and Austin. Here are some reasons why.
Nevertheless, the longest bettor in Vegas could not have wagered on what would happen after his fixing-to-die album: There followed a few years of commercial disappointment; he got in Dutch with the IRS over a remarkable unpaid tax bill; made an album sold by TV advertisements to pay off part of that bill; made a masterpiece too few people heard; and recorded duets than one could realistically list authoritatively.
Then followed a period of venerable celebration: Willie Nelson was awash in living legend status as a musician who has cut a distinctive path for decades. His friends and colleagues and collaborators checked out one after the other, and here we are with Nelson as a last man standing. “I don’t go to funerals,” he sings on a new song. “I won’t go to mine.”
To celebrate Nelson’s birthday, I considered an 89-song list for the 89 years, but then remembered how hollow a similar exercise felt at 80.
WILLIE NELSON: 81 OF HIS GREATEST SONGS
Nelson has written and recorded so many enduring songs, trying to put them into ordered form is a fool’s errand. Recently my parents drove into Houston from the Midwest and the USB ports in my father’s car came unmoored. Like me, he doesn’t do streaming. So for the long drive back, he went to Cactus Music and picked up Nelson’s “Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be),” which is as good a driving album as exists and a pretty fair representation of what a Nelson concert setlist looks like.
Nelson has made nearly 100 studio albums; more than a dozen live recordings; and he’s been anthologized dozens of times. His discography is as daunting as any in popular American music. And it gets more imposing with each year. This week he releases “A Beautiful Time,” which is Nelson’s FOURTH album in the 2020s. Every Nelson fan will rate albums differently, though his ‘70s run that includes “Phases and Stages,” “Shotgun Willie,” “Red Headed Stranger” and “Stardust” is difficult to top. But for those looking beyond his iconic back-to-Texas heyday, the following offer some indication of the breadth of Nelson’s genius.
His latest includes a cover of a Leonard Cohen song in which Nelson sings, “I’m paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song.” The sentiment is easy to appreciate. But at this point, he owns his own space in that tower.
So what follows is the opposite of “Greatest Hits,” though perhaps a few hits surface here and there. And it’s deliberately weighted toward the past 30 years, which in Willie time is part two of his career, though his circuitous path doesn’t lend itself to easy phases and stages in the ways more deliberate musicians work. Each album is a phase or stage or just another stop on one of the most rewarding discographies in popular recorded music.
1. “Let the Rest of the World Go By”: Nelson’s spirited “One for the Road” was a 1979 collaboration with the great singer-songwriter-keyboardist Leon Russell. It’s a studio recording that possesses the raggedy vibe of a live album. They cover country, pop, rock, folk and big band standards. This tune, which dates back to 1919, feels completely untethered from time. Nelson’s shows are always celebratory gatherings, but he is one of this country’s greatest balladeers. It feels like he stops time when he does the slow stuff.
2. “The Local Memory”: Try the version from “Crazy: The Demo Sessions,” which – true to the title – collect some of Nelson’s spare early recordings he hoped to get other singers to cut. He’d revisit this song multiple times over the years. But everything it needs is right here with a guitar-and-vocal version.
3. “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone”: The version on “Phases and Stages” (my single favorite Nelson album), remains definitive. But the solo take on “Who’ll Buy My Memories, Vol. 1” has an absolutely perfect vocal and zero distractions from a direct and sad song.
4. “Bring It on Down to My House”: “Willie and the Wheel” – a 2009 collaboration with beloved western swing ensemble Asleep at the Wheel – is among the most sprightly of Nelson’s 21st century recordings, and an absolute joy from first note to last. This traditional tune is playful, brassy and exemplifies the infectious energy from their collaboration.
5. “Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning”: This Chips Moman-penned song is kind of buried on “Always on My Mind.” The first verse teeters close to comic. The second verse is just devastating as a significant other returns home drunk, Nelson wringing so much emotion from every visual: “Last night you came home late, and I knew you’d been drinking by that old mellow look on your face,” he sings. “And I thought it don’t matter, ‘cause it’s the holiday season, and you fill such a big empty space.” It’s a full narrative in under 40 words. For what it’s worth: Nelson’s take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from the same album is a gorgeous reading of an iconic song.
6. “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise”: Another one that goes back a bit. The song was written in 1918 by Eugene Lockhart and became a big band standard. It’s probably best known for the Les Paul/Mary Ford take. Nelson’s surprise hit “Stardust” remains the best of his albums of old pop standards, but its shadow is overstated. “Moonlight Becomes You” from 1993 is a perfect recording, start to finish. And this song is zesty and jazzy and Nelson’s vocal dances along.
7. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”: Another standard, and the title track from a 2013 album that deserved more attention than it got. The vocal is weathered and expressive, the guitar solo is sublime, the vibe mellow and gorgeous.
8. The beginning of “It Always Will Be”: Not a contrarian so much as one who defies expectations, Nelson starts this 2004 album very quietly with an original (the title track) and a cover of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame.” Not everything on the album works, but it’s a diamond that gets lost in his discography.
9. “Spirit”: It’s a cheat to put an album on a list of songs. But I’m doing it anyway. Nelson told me “Spirit” – ignored upon arrival in 1996 – might be his favorite recording of the scores he’s made. And for good reason: the instrumentation is spare – Willie on vocals and guitar, sister Bobbie on piano, Johnny Gimble on fiddle and Jody Payne on rhythm guitar – which lets the elements resonate hauntingly.
10. “Across the Borderline”: It’s the title track from something of a “comeback album” in 1993. But the album found some very recognizable covers (Paul Simon’s “American Tune” and “Graceland”) and some notable duets (like Sinead O’Connor). But this song written my James Dickinson has a funereal quality that stands out.
WILLIE NELSON CONQUERS TIME IN SUGAR LAND
11. “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down”: This appears on a curious but lovingly assembled set of very old roots music songs called, naturally, “Country Music.” Tangling with Old Scratch, Nelson lends the song an ominous gravity.
12. “I Was Just Walkin’ Out the Door”: One of the benefits of being Willie Nelson, nobody tells you what to do. Even projects that sound odd on paper often work out. In 2006 he made an album from a baker’s dozen songs written by Cindy Walker, a brilliant and fairly forgotten singer and songwriter and Texas native whose tunes have over the years been recorded by Bob Wills, Roy Orbison, Glen Campbell and others. This one is slow and gorgeous and closes the record.
13. “Wake Me When It’s Over”: “Milk Cow Blues” was billed as Nelson’s “blues album,” though he’s trafficked in the blues for 60 years. Some of the guest guitarists are distracting, but this song settles into a moody groove without anybody’s soloing getting in the way.
14. “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye”: Nelson’s “Teatro” is divisive among the faithful. Some think producer Daniel Lanois overly smudged his style over Willie’s sound. But that’s the thing: Nobody can make Nelson sound like anything but Nelson. There’s a greater sense of atmosphere here, but the songs – many old Nelson-penned tunes – hold up no matter the treatment. The song was 20-plus years old when they recorded it. Time doesn’t matter.
15. “Fly Me to the Moon”: Favoritism rules here. This standard is one of my favorite songs in the English language. I’m partial to a few Tony Bennett versions. But Willie slinks behind the beat – as he’s wont to do – and finds magic. And the guitar solo is not a candy. It’s a candy shop. Nelson’s “My Way” (a Frank Sinatra tribute) and “That’s Life” (a companion album – check the album cover’s “In the Wee Small Hours” homage) are full of very old songs expressively reimagined.
16. “That’s the Way Love Goes”: Everybody has done this Lefty Frizzell song, but Willie pumped the brakes on the tempo adding a melancholic mood to a song that often feels full of trials but with the possibility of triumphs. He doesn’t break the wheel. He just makes the path between joy and sadness a little more twisted.
17. “Summer of Roses”: Imagine your favorite songwriter coming up with a title like “Summer of Roses” 20-plus years into their career. This is on Nelson’s near-death-experience album. It hovers and darts and swoops like a hummingbird. And we’re nearly 40 years past this funereal song and album. What is time?
18. “Energy Follows Thought”: Five of the 14 songs on Nelson’s latest are originals. Some of the covers are lovely (Cohen’s “Tower of Song”) and some are perhaps growers (the Beatles (“With a Little Help From My Friends”). But his voice – more frayed than it was before, but still unquestionably Willie – remains an incredibly expressive vessel. This song is deep lyrically, and there’s a comfy vocal and a sharp guitar solo. That’s what Willie Nelson does, right? Imagine doing it for more than 60 years and still sounding so vital. Simply put, he’s a treasure.
Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become TV’s “Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.
Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.