By Hal Horowitz
His windswept voice that cracks and strains displays the wear and tear of decades. But that just makes these performances reverberate with the truths Willie Nelson wants to communicate.
Willie Nelson celebrates birthday number 89 with yet another release (his 17th since 2012), adding to a legacy that's been built over approximately 75 thematic full-length works. Of course, he’s back “on the road again” as well - something only the pandemic put a halt to after decades of nearly non-stop touring.
Not surprisingly, there are few stylistic revelations on A Beautiful Time. Willie co-wrote six of the 14 tracks with longtime cohort/producer Buddy Cannon. Cannon frames these originals and well-chosen covers with a sturdy - if somewhat staid - set of studio musicians, who laid down their parts with a “scratch vocal” from another singer.
Nelson was given the finished product to overdub his vocals and occasional instrumental input from Trigger, his trusty, tattered, nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. It may not be the most interactive way to create music, but it’s efficient and effective.
Regardless, the results are impressive. There are plenty of expected selections about mortality, some humorous, (‘I Won’t Go to Funerals’ is followed 'I won’t be at mine') and fondly musing on a life well-lived (the sweet ballad title track, written by Sean Camp, features the lyrics “After the last song has been played / I’ll look back and say / I sure had a beautiful time”).
While this tends towards cliché on ‘Live Every Day’ (“like it was your last one, and one day you’re gonna be right” completes the thought), Nelson sings with such weathered, self-deprecating authority that you’ll want to cozy up with these warm reminiscences and give him a virtual embrace.
Two covers are especially notable. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’ finds Nelson proudly singing “My friends are all gone and my hair has turned gray” in a tune that seems to have been written for him. And even if we don’t need another version of Lennon/McCartney’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, Willie delivers it in a subtle and unlikely but fitting country arrangement featuring crying pedal steel and harmonica playing the riff. His trademarked charm, poise and grace take care of the rest.
There are moments of reflecting over romances that did or didn’t pan out, such as the opener co-write from Rodney Crowell/Chris Stapleton, ‘I’ll Love You to the Day I Die’, arguably this album’s finest moment. When Nelson closes the generous 50-minute disc with the bittersweet ‘Leave You With a Smile’, singing “If I run out of time, I’ll wait for you in the sweet by and by”, even the most hardened lover of outlaw country will be wiping away a tear.
His windswept voice that cracks and strains to hit the high notes displays the wear and tear of decades. But that just makes these performances reverberate with the truths Willie Nelson wants to communicate before he shuffles off to the next life.
He’s still doing what he loves and with an album as moving, authentic and affirming as A Beautiful Time, there’s no reason for him to stop now.
A Beautiful Time is out on Friday, April 29th Via Legacy. You can purchase the record from Holler's selected partners below: