Album Review – Willie Nelson’s “Band of Brothers”

willie-nelson

Let’s face it. Willie Nelson could take his sweaty, old man-smelling headband off, slingshot it out to center stage, and it would still be more enriching than what most of modern country radio has to offer. Simply the tone of his voice immediately puts the inertia of nearly a century of noble contributions to country music behind whatever he does. A few plucks of his guitar “Trigger,” and the woody tones can can make you break out in bone-deep shivers. Just the visage of Willie—the Pocahontas braids and the folds of wisdom feathered by white whiskers enveloping one of the world’s most respected faces—commands immediate reverence, and a warm feeling usually reserved only for the proximity of close family.

Band of Brothers finds Willie Nelson once again united with producer Buddy Cannon for their fourth offering on Sony’s Legacy Recordings imprint. Where the first album Heroes felt like a significant retrenching for Willie, the subsequent Let’s Face The Music & Dance and To All The Girls felt a little more forced in their premise, though undoubtedly delivering some fine music. Band of Brothers comes across much more like an inspired, purposeful effort, with the point being to showcase the 81-year old’s continuing proficiency as a songwriter—the skill that got him into all of this country music nonsense in the very first place. Though Willie has written and recorded many original songs recently, this is the first album in some 17 years that finds his own handiwork featured in the majority.

willie-nelson-band-of-brothersAnd where Willie’s last two albums were a little more refined and light, which can only be expected from such an aged performer, Band of Brothers has some piss and vinegar to it; some balls, and even some bawdy, bellicose language. In many respects this is a hard, true country album in the material, if not exactly in the tone, which finds Willie sticking close to his established sound: light drums, his own leads, and Mickey Raphael’s familiar harp fleeting in and out.

Though the rhetoric around this album is about how much of it Willie wrote, the contributions mark many of the album’s most noteworthy moments. While some of Buddy Cannon’s albums can be a little too collaboration happy, Band of Brother’s sole duet is on the Billy Joe Shaver-penned song “The Git Go”, where Jamey Johnson shows up to sing a few lines. This troika of country music talent makes the rendition well worth your attention, and the smoky, lounge-like take on this song does the original justice. Shaver also shows up in the songwriting credits for “Hard To Be an Outlaw”, which features a straight up country protest line in the second verse.

Some super stars nowadays, gets too far off the ground
Singing about the backroads, they never have been down
They go and call it country, but that ain’t the way it sounds
It’s enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town
 

You combine this with the adulterous sentiment of “Wives and Girlfriends,” the very entertaining and adventurous “The Songwriters” by Gordie Sampson and Bill Anderson, and the S-bombs Willie drops in the Dennis Morgan-written “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling To Do,” and you’re surely made aware that Willie still has plenty of fire left in him.

Where Band of Brothers shines brightest however is in the introspective song “The Wall”. As was said in the song review, isn’t it interesting how we look upon Willie Nelson as such a saint of not just music or country music, but of the nation and world, and here he is releasing a song that instead of reveling in his accomplishments and resting on his laurels, catches the 81-year-old country legend looking back upon his past mistakes, self-deprecating and pensive, yet understanding how those mistakes made him the man he is today. Though some aspects of Willie’s recent Buddy Cannon pairing seem like taking it safe—like Cannon showing up as a co-writer on all of Willie’s original songs for this album, almost like it was mandated by Sony or something—the production of “The Wall” spreads its wings, and the song benefits from it.

The opening song “Bring It On” is quite good too, and fresh-feeling, with Willie puffing his chest out, inviting a good challenge. “I Thought I Left You” shows that classic love songwriting is still running thick in Willie’s blood, and is rivaled by Vince Gill’s “Whenever You Come Around,” which was a worthy inclusion, despite a rough beginning in Willie’s vocals. The album’s theme song, “Band of Brothers”, rekindles that old “On The Road Again” sentiment of camaraderie.

Having seen Willie Nelson numerous times recently, the case could be made that a slippage of skills is slowly starting to catch up with him, which can only be expected. And some of those moments get captured on this album. Though Buddy Cannon never seems to completely wow you, he’s consistent. This really is a great collection of songs, despite some soft patches, and a few well-trodden paths that are tough for holding the attention. However incrementally diminished his skills might be, Willie Nelson shows a lot of spirit, a lot of fight in Band of Brothers, and any swan song seems far off.

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1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

Preview & Purchase Tracks to Band of Brothers