Willie Nelson: It Always Will Be
Label: Lost Highway
Sound/Style: Mostly low-key and uncharacteristically slick country with a few twists
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Willie Nelson, one of Nashville’s earliest mavericks, bucked the country industry’s assembly-line approach to music and spearheaded the nascent "outlaw country" movement of the late 1960s. An independent thinker and flag-waving Texan, Nelson now rarely cuts records outside of his Pedernales, Texas, studio--a facility which affords him virtually limitless artistic control. One has to ponder, then, what caused him to return to Music City and enlist its signature session musicians to record a collection of songs penned primarily by mainstream Nashville songsmiths.
Still, It Always Will Be isn’t entirely a Nashville paint-by-number affair, since the recording includes such curve balls as a cover of Tom Waits’ peculiar "Picture In A Frame" and a duet with alternative country artist Lucinda Williams. Williams’ syllable-morphing drawl couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Norah Jones’ exquisite jazz-blues lilt. But the two guest artists unthinkably appear, side by side, on a pair of consecutive duets with Nelson. This fact alone speaks eloquently of his inimitably broad range as an interpreter and his equally vast appeal. Jones, nearly 50 years’ Nelson’s junior, not only holds her own, she fairly sparkles alongside her host on a classy cocktail hour tune, "Dreams Come True."
Nelson’s typically reedy vocals and oft-uneven phrasing are strangely but pleasingly minimal throughout, replaced by cleanly executed lines in Nelson’s surprisingly well-modulated lower register. Nearly every track features the singer pulling baritone melodies out of his bottom drawer, resulting in perhaps his best sounding vocal performance ever. A basement-level bass line in the George Jones/Conway Twitty tradition kicks off "Love’s The One And Only Thing," which, coupled with "Tired," are record highlights. The unanswered longing in the heart of "Love’s" not-yet-hopeless protagonist is the upside to the well-meaning but emotionally deadened family in "Tired." The song reads like literature, rife with well-etched details of lives weathered by dull routine and lacking in a core meaning. A possible clue to these characters’ wearisome survival tactics comes in an especially telling line about rote cultural spirituality: "We go to church on Sundays/ ‘cause we want to go to Heaven/ me and my family, ain’t that how you’re supposed to do?"
One of the few upbeat tunes, "I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leavin’)," is a country boogie that borrows its lopsided logic from the likes of Groucho Marx ("Hello, I Must Be Going"), but pours on a liberal amount of distilled spirits. This accounts for the cantankerous and crude proposal that closes the song. A similarly ungracious epithet comes from the fed-up female in the juvenile but nonetheless entertaining "Big Booty," whose departure hits her man where it hurts him most – his empty stomach.
The Nashville-styled record is bookended with Nelson’s own leathery thumbprints. On the front end, his self-penned title track drips with a classically bittersweet flavor, while the languid, minor-keyed "Texas" (the only other Nelson original) is an evocative track comprised of one part border cantina country and one part tumbleweed tango. The raucous reading of Gregg Allman’s "Midnight Rider" closes the disc by restating Nelson’s outlaw creed. Nelson briefly lets himself be put into tailored musical garb – and wears it fairly well – on "It Always Will Be," perhaps settling a score with a Nashville that wasn’t big enough for his sound and theirs by making their sound work, his way.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.