Album Review – Willie Nelson’s “The Border”

#510 (Traditional Country) on the Country DDS

At this point, all the plaudits and praise have virtually been exhausted, and you struggle for words that don’t feel like platitudes whenever talking about the the sheer longevity of Willie Nelson’s career, and his continued prolific run both as a performing and recording artist. All previous benchmarks have been shattered, and at the age of 91, Willie’s tenure has entered unprecedented territory. Sure, a few other performers have made it to this advanced stage, but none that are still as active as Willie.

There are so many new albums being released in what’s supposed to be the twilight era of Willie’s career, it’s essential to place them in two separate categories. First, you have his tributes and retrospective releases. This includes his 2023 albums Bluegrass that reimagined many of his greatest songs in acoustical form and I Don’t Know a Thing About Love that focused on the songs of his good friend Harlan Howard.

Then you have his “original” albums that look to add to the greater Willie Nelson canon, like 2022’s stunning and Grammy Award-winning A Beautiful Time. Willie wasn’t just riding off of sentimentality to all the praise the album received. The song selection, the treatments, and the aged but still capable contours of Willie’s voice resulted in a spellbinding experience.

His new album The Border also fits into that latter category of contributing to Willie’s original works, with four new songs co-written by Willie with producer Buddy Cannon, along with a couple of songs written by Rodney Crowell, and some worthy songwriters such as Erin Enderlin, Shawn Camp, and Larry Cordle being able to brag they wrote a song for Willie too.

Willie Nelson continues to mesmerize with the confidence of his delivery and the exploration of his aged, but character-laden voice. Of course he doesn’t sound like ’70s Willie, and shouldn’t be expected to. Yet by exploiting the near century of history we all have with Willie Nelson and his music, it sounds like we’re listening to a deity.

Willie and Buddy Cannon also continue to insist that the earthen tones of Willie’s nylon string guitar Trigger constitute large portions of both the solos and instrument beds of his albums, along with the harmonica of the last surviving member of Willie’s original Family Band, Mickey Raphael. This ensures that no matter what else happens, everything you hear is distinctly Willie.

Though some in this polarized moment will see the title to this album and assume Willie is engaging in some political statement, that’s not the case at all. On the contrary, Rodney Crowell’s song “The Border” evokes all the complexity of the immigration issue, and the troubles and dilemmas it poses.

In a first-person perspective, the song recounts the life of a border patrol agent, and even invokes the names of Jose Compean and Ignacio Ramos—two border patrol agents who wounded a drug smuggler trying to transport 750 pounds of marijuana. The agents were arrested and convicted, but eventually pardoned by President George W. Bush.

But The Border really isn’t really about these matters beyond the first song. Instead, it’s a collection of love songs, songs about writing songs, and songs quietly reflecting on the historical past of country music. “Once Upon a Yesterday” is a sweet self-recollection by Willie back on his life while also mentioning Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams. The song “Hank’s Guitar” co-written by Buddy Cannon and Bobby Tomberlin sees the world through the perspective of Hank Sr.’s six string.

With some of his most recent original albums, the way the words fit with Willie’s age and history, it left a haunting feeling in the audience. There are a few moments like this on the new album like the track “I Wrote This Song For You,” but they’re a bit more fleeting. And though 10 songs is plenty for an album, you do feel like you’re missing one or two here that could have scored a deeper impact.

There could have been a more thematic approach to this album, telling stories from the Texas/Mexico border perhaps, or like multiple songs from his last original albums, speaking to Willie’s age and mortality in sentimental ways. “Made In Texas” is a fun track, though not really a “border” song, and hearing Willie sing Crowell’s hit “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway” is enjoyable. But The Border feels more like a collection of songs as opposed to a cohesive work.

What’s still most certainly present is the immortal magic of Willie. There’s just something warm and enveloping about hearing his voice emerge out of your speakers, the history it brings to mind, and the assurance it emits. The world may be spinning out of control and the future uncertain. But as long as Willie Nelson remains with us in the present tense, it’s hard to not feel a bit more at peace, and grateful.


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