How much creative energy can we realistically expect an 89-year-old entertainer to have left? Well if that entertainer is Willie Nelson, the answer is apparently quite a bit, maybe even reaching into the territory of abundance. And we’re able to come to this conclusion even if we place aside all of the sentimentality that we’ve built up for Willie over the life of a legendary career by giving an objective listen to his latest album, A Beautiful Time.
Sure, the voice might not be as strong as it was when Willie was warbling out “On The Road Again.” But the writing is just as incisive, the tones from his guitar Trigger are as rich as ever, and even the weathered nature of Willie’s warble infuses the songs with a more distinctive flavor, allowing a wealth of musical enjoyment and some important wisdom to be conveyed that performers a quarter of Willie’s age struggle to deliver in similar doses.
What a gorgeous record this is, fleshed out with new original songs from Willie himself and others, and a few obvious covers released for posterity. To be frank, the way they’ve been churning out Willie records at a two-per-year clip in recent years—including ones mostly of covers, traditionals, or previously-released material—obfuscates just how excellent Willie’s more original late career albums truly are.
A Beautiful Time was constructed like all country albums should be: start with whatever worthy original new songs the performer can muster, and then canvas country music’s rich population of career songwriters to find other stuff that’s worthy of wide attention, and fits the style and voice of the singer.
In this case, you have some incredible songs that could have been custom-written for Willie making the cut, including Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton’s “I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die” to start off the album, a song called “A Beautiful Time” written by Shawn Camp, which is a perfect Willie song about gratefulness and loving life on the road, and the incredible “Dusty Bottles” penned by Jim “Moose” Brown, Scotty Emerick and Don Sampson that had to be written for Willie personally about the beauty of growing old. These three songs alone are worth rustling up a copy of A Beautiful Time.
But of course it’s Willie’s own songs, like the transcendental “Energy Follows Thought,” or his ponderances upon mortality in “I Don’t Go To Funerals” and “Live Every Day” that make this album distinctly Willie. In fact, this feels like one of Willie’s most personal albums to date, and one of his best. And like he’s been doing for some five or six years now, Willie knows how to weave the worry we all feel about his mortality into his songs, imbuing them with that additional emotional dimension that makes the music that much more resonant and meaningful.
Willie may live to be 109, and we still will be falling for this, because none of us want to ponder a world without Willie. But where some of the songs broaching Willie’s impermanence have been quite silly (“Roll me Up and Smoke Me…” “Still Not Dead Again Today”), the songs of A Beautiful Time are much more reflective and wise. Willie sings in “Live Every Day” to live every day like it was your last. Well, Willie Nelson is writing every song like it’s his last, trying to squeeze every bit of learning he’s amassed over those 89 years into songs with the same lucidity and appeal as when he penned “Crazy” for Patsy Cline 60 years ago.
And even though Willie’s “Family Band” continues to suffer attrition over time, including the recent loss of sister Bobbie on piano—and with really only Willie himself and harmonica player Mickey Raphael being the remaining pieces—Willie’s voice, his guitar playing and tone, and Raphael’s faraway harp have always constituted the heart of the Willie Nelson sound, and here 97 studio albums in, this still rings true.
The somewhat silly song on the album “We’re Not Happy (Till You’re Not Happy)” adds a bit of a speed bump to the emotional and reflective nature of this work as opposed to comic relief, and “Me and My Partner” feels a little superfluous too. 12 songs instead of 14 might have tightened this album up. But overall it most certainly is a solid work, including the covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” and “With A Little Help From My Friends” from The Beatles. It also comes with stunning cover art, starting in black and white, with Willie walk down the main road of his little Western town of Luck, Texas, and then bursting into sunset colors over the Luck hill.
We’re so used to the law of diminishing returns being the rule when it comes to our favorite artists in music. But Willie Nelson is the exception. With now a host of his late career records—and A Beautiful Time being perhaps the best example of all—Willie Nelson proves his unparalleled longevity as an artist, and why his music has earned immortality.
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