By Hal Horowitz
'I Don't Know A Thing About Love' succeeds as both an education to those unfamiliar with Harlan Howard and a stellar addition to Nelson’s already bulging catalog
Label: Legacy Recordings
Release Date: 3/3/23
Producer: Buddy Cannon
1. Tiger By The Tail
2. The Chokin' Kind
3. Excuse Me (I Think I've Got A Heartache)
4. Life Turned Her That Way
5. I Don't Know A Thing About Love
6. Streets Of Baltimore
8. She Called Me Baby
9. Too Many Rivers
10. Beautiful Annabel Lee
Most seniors celebrate their 90th birthdays by chilling out with friends and relatives, eating an oversized cake that fits those candles and taking a snooze in the afternoon. Not Willie Nelson.
He’s commemorating his nine decades on earth by winning a Grammy, hitting the road and releasing another top-quality record.
Nelson’s umpteenth album, and fifteenth (approximately) in the past decade, pays tribute to legendary country songwriter Harlan Howard. The ten tracks cherry-pick classics from Howard’s enormous bag of country compositions, letting Nelson slather them with his signature Willie-ness.
The concept isn’t new; Nelson’s old buddy Waylon Jennings recorded Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan back in 1967, and four of those tunes are repeated here. Regardless, this is a wonderful set of gems, including some of the finest in country music’s extensive history in ‘The Chokin’ Kind’ and ‘Streets of Baltimore’.
While most have been previously performed by other artists, Nelson works his magic, not so much covering them as transforming them into songs of his own.
The relatively stripped-down backing allows him to expose the anguish inherent in many of Howard’s writings, songs that were often focused on the dissolution of relationships (‘She Called Me Baby’, ‘Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache’, ‘Too Many Rivers’). Nelson’s quivering, self-effacing voice captures that heartbreak, his senior status adding an extra dollop of authenticity to make it seem like he’s recounting personal life incidents.
‘Tiger by the Tail’ - the story of a guy who can’t keep up with his seemingly younger, and far more energetic, new girlfriend - reveals the lighter aspects of Howard’s songwriting talents.
But as the record progresses, the lyrics turn gloomier and more melancholy. Selections like ‘Life Turned Her That Way’ (a hit for George Jones) with the lyrics “She's been walked on and stepped on, so many times / And I hate to admit it but that last footprint's mine / She was crying when I met her / she cries louder today”, reflect life’s troubling situations with gripping honesty.
By the time ‘Beautiful Annabel Lee’ - where the narrator hopes to connect with his titular love in heaven - reaches its end, it’s tough to hold back the waterworks.
At just over a half hour of playing time, Willie could certainly have included a few more of Howard’s 4000+ titles. But let’s give the nonagenarian a break, this succeeds as both an education to those unfamiliar with the writer and a stellar addition to Nelson’s already bulging catalog.
He might still take that afternoon nap though. He’s surely earned it.
8.5 / 10
Willie Nelson's 2023 album, I Don't Know A Thing About Love, is released March 3rd via Legacy Recordings. You can purchase the record from one of Holler's selected partners below:
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