Willie Nelson will turn 90 on April 29th, and has shown no signs of slowing down, either on the road, or in the studio. His last album called A Beautiful Time was released last year on his birthday and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Country Album, and earned it entirely on the merit of the music. A Beautiful Time didn’t need sentimentality to be appreciated. It was evidentiary of what an astounding creative force Willie Nelson continues to be.
Since beginning his partnership with Sony’s Legacy Recordings now over a decade ago, Willie has taken the approach of releasing original records like A Beautiful Time, and then returning to previous material or paying tribute to past greats in between. I Don’t Know a Thing About Love continues that pattern, this time honoring the “Dean of Nashville Songwriters” and the guy who coined the country music definition “Three chords and the truth”—the immortal Harlan Howard.
What’s different about Willie Nelson paying tribute to a past great of American music is that he’s not doing it from a place of reverence for the past. Many of these guys were his contemporaries. He’s just happened to outlive them all. It was during the CMA Awards week in 1971 when Harlan Howard invited Willie Nelson to one of his famous guitar pulls. Willie was picking on his guitar Trigger, which already had the famous hole in it, and was playing songs from an album he wanted to record called Phases and Stages. Problem was, Willie was sideways with his label RCA and wanted his creative freedom.
Also at the Harlan Howard guitar pull was famous producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. After hearing Willie Nelson’s songs, Wexler asked Willie to sign with the label on the spot. This is what gave Willie Nelson the freedom to record what he wanted and with who he wanted, helping to spark the “Outlaw” revolution in country music. Consider this new album Willie Nelson’s payback to his old friend for the favor.
Most country fans will be familiar with many of the songs from the album: “Tiger By The Tail” was taken to #1 by Buck Owens, “Life Turned Her That Way” was recorded by Mel Tillis, and then cut by Ricky Van Shelton in 1988. But it’s also not all of the most obvious Harlan Howard hits like “Heartaches By The Number” originally recorded by Ray Price, or Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces.” Instead Willie selected “The Chokin’ Kind” that was a semi-hit for Waylon Jennings in 1967, for example.
I Don’t Know a Thing About Love and now go-to Willie producer Buddy Cannon take a pretty straightforward approach with the material for the album. Utilizing musicians like Jim “Moose” Brown on keys, James Mitchell on guitar, and of course Mickey Raphael on harmonica, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. They just try to do justice to these Harlan Howard songs. After all, there is already a definitive version of “Streets of Baltimore” out there recorded by Bobby Bare, and Conway Twitty’s version of “I Don’t Know A Thing About Love” (also known as “The Moon Song”) is tough to beat.
What is surprising to most listeners is just how good Willie Nelson sounds on these recordings. At (almost) 90 years old, you expect a little weathering on the vocal tones, and in fact it’s that little bit of character that Willie brings to studio performances that makes an album like A Beautiful Time feel so warm and real. But whether it’s “studio magic,” catching Willie on some good days, or his voice and breathing have markedly improved recently, Nelson sounds great on this record, including in higher registers that you’re not used to hearing him reach for.
I Don’t Know a Thing About Love will not go on to win any Grammy Awards. Or if it does, it will be due to sentimentality. This is just not that kind of album. But along with Willie Nelson still releasing remarkable output, he is still doing what he wants. That’s why he left RCA in the early 70s. That’s why he ended up at a Harlan Howard guitar pull and in front of Jerry Wexler. And that’s why he recorded this album. Willie Nelson doing what he wanted saved country music in the 70s, and he continues that legacy today.
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