One day, and maybe not too far off in the distant future, you will be bragging about how you lived in the time of Willie Nelson. Whether you’re an oldtimer and remember buying Red Headed Stranger or Wanted: The Outlaws new on vinyl, or you discovered Willie in your college years as a back catalog artist listening to “On The Road Again,” you lived on Planet Earth at the same time as Willie Nelson. You saw him live, you bought his records the day they were released. And future generations will look upon you with a bit of wonder, and envy.
Willie Nelson didn’t just live through The Depression and the time of Bob Wills, he played with Bob Wills. He played in the band of Ray Price, and hung out with Patsy Cline. But no matter what age you might be, no matter when or where you first heard him, years from now when marijuana is legal across the land, and all the true legends of country music are a long time gone, you will always be able to boast of being a soul that lived during the Age of Willie.
It is no longer a matter of “if” for Willie, but “when.” He’s now 84-years-old, and if there is any parting gifts bestowed to the very old, it is that life slowly relinquishes the fear of dying, and replaces it with the appreciation for life, and the wisdom that everyone must eventually move on, and that’s okay. God’s Problem Child finds Willie Nelson pondering on those final stages of life like never before, and finding the peace within himself to convey to others the virtues of this time through the gift of songwriting.
Since Willie launched this current era of output with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, there have been two types of Willie Nelson albums; the first being projects that consist mostly of cover songs, many times just as much traditional pop and early jazz as country. These releases all have their moments, and as a Willie fan, you put a brave face on and say, “Oh, a seventh studio version of ‘Nuages,'” and listen anyway because it’s Willie.
Then there are the albums with more originally-oriented material. And though we all well up with nostalgia whenever you hear those unmistakable cadences in Willie’s voice, or the woody, nylon string tone of Trigger, and the lonesome moan of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, the material itself on these newer Willie Nelson original releases does not solely rely on Willie’s history to be worth hearing. These albums constitute a brilliant, and relevant contribution to the listening public beyond leaning on legacy for importance and attention. And God’s Problem Child is no different.
Willie Nelson has always been one to defy his nature. His performing career didn’t take off until he was nearly 40. His youthful indiscretions were replaced by his transformation into an iconic health nut. Willie has stated that he wants to die on stage, and that very well may happen. But there’s something about Willie’s aura that makes you believe he will live forever. That’s why it’s a little strange to hear him pondering on the next stage of life, and singing about losing faculties like on “Old Timer” about coming to grips with one’s own age, or the slow and reflecting “It Gets Easier” about breaking commitments as opposed to defying odds to keep them. Even “Butterfly” from God’s Problem Child seems to be about trying to capture something later in life that always remains elusive.
However Willie’s voice remains strong on this recording, and his guitar playing is spirited. Willie also has a little fun in “Still Not Dead Again Today” with the fact that as one of the world’s most revered characters, even outside of music, internet hucksters have likely made millions via ad revenue from fake death stories and other internet exploitations surrounding embellished takes on Willie’s health status. Willie is one of the very last of an era, and this is never made more clear than when he sings the tribute to his late friend Merle Haggard written by Gary Nicholson, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.”
God’s Problem Child also includes love songs brilliantly-written by Nelson with Buddy Cannon like “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own,” and the touching “True Love.” But even these selections have a touch of mortality interwoven in their stories. “When the whole damn thing is over, and we reach our journey’s end,” Willie sings on “True Love,” “I’ll leave this world believing in true love, you’re still my friend.”
“Little House on the Hill” is written by Willie Nelson producer and co-writer Buddy Cannon’s 92-year-old mom, Lyndel Rhodes. You can’t help wondering how much nepotism played a role in this selection, especially when you see that Willie Nelson can’t get a new song published these days without Cannon’s name getting co-writing credits (which seems to be the new “Third For A Word” rule for producers on the Row). But the song works on this record, even if one interpretation can be taken as a spiritual, and one that seems to be pondering life’s final journey once again.
There are also political sentiments, though subtle and universal in message, like “Delete and Fast Forward,” or the slyly-written “I Made A Mistake” about how it’s okay to fail or lie, as long as one eventually fesses up to it. God’s Problem Child is also blessed with some good song structures and chording, which Buddy Cannon probably deserves some credit for. Sometimes Willie’s songs take the same basic approach as his previous material. “Still Not Dead” is somewhat guilty of that. But on numerous occasions, where these songs go sonically surprises you a little bit, exploring new chord changes that help freshen Willie’s approach to country music.
Willie Nelson has never been one to rest on his laurels, or rely on past greatness to carry him through today. Even as he enters well into old age, he still approaches the journey with a life force and wisdom to convey his feelings and insight in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening. Hopefully Willie Nelson will live forever, because it’s impossible to fathom a world without Willie in it. And we’re not just talking about living forever through his legacy or his music, because obviously that is secured.
But the hard truth is that Willie won’t be around forever. As one of the most wise souls left on the entire planet, nobody knows this better than Willie. And so we’re going to get through the final stages of his life—which hopefully includes many more years and much more music—the same way we got through the first stages of life on Planet Earth with Willie: relying on his music to bring us the wisdom to work through the hard times, the joy to celebrate the good times, and end up as better people for listening to the careful musings and lesson that only a Willie Nelson song can convey.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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