“I woke up still not dead again today,” Willie Nelson sings. “The internet said that I had passed away.” I first listened to this song shortly after reading – yes, on the internet – that Willie was circling the drain. So I thought, “I’d better review this new Willie Nelson disc while he’s still with us.”
Well, as of this writing, Willie’s still with us, and I’m also pleased to report that God’s Problem Child – that’s the title of this, his 61st studio album – is right up there with his best. Like his friend and fellow road warrior Bob Dylan, Willie has tossed off so many records that some of them are bound to be sub-par, but this ain’t one of ’em. It has 13 tracks, seven of them co-written by Nelson with his producer Buddy Cannon. Like the best country albums, it’s a nice mix of shuffles slow and fast, a couple of waltzes, a gospel-style tune, some ballads and some rockers. And plenty of Willie’s signature licks on his famous guitar Trigger, in Willie’s inimitable style that somehow combines blues, jazz, rock and country and never seems to include a cliché.
That joking refutation to the rumors of his demise notwithstanding, it’s a mostly somber affair. As befits the times, which he addresses on “Delete And Fast Forward,” one of a scant handful of upbeat tunes on this one. It’s his reaction to the election of 2016, in which the 84-year-old Texan waxes philosophical about the cyclical nature of life. That’s one of the high points.
Some of the others include the title track, written by young country singer Jamey Johnson and old country singer Tony Joe White. As befits a Tony Joe White song, it has a slow, dark, swampy groove and bluesy lyrics about … well, about the kind of men these are, who follow their muse wherever it takes them. Johnson and Tony Joe share the vocal duties on it, as does the late great Leon Russell on one of his last recording dates. Nelson does some of his most moving guitar soloing ever on this one.
I just love “I Made A Mistake,” another Nelson-Cannon song. It’s a honky-tonk waltz that’ll end up in the classic Nelson songbook, with some great pedal steel guitar and that signature Willie Nelson insouciance. Which also shows up in the hard-luck shuffle “Your Memory Has A Mind Of Its Own.”
The album ends with a touching tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” by singer Gary Nicholson. The Hag “left us a lifetime of song,” goes one line. Of course, the same will someday be said about Willie Nelson, who, thank goodness is still with us. If you haven’t picked up a Willie Nelson album in a while, don’t miss this one.