Willie Nelson Is Paying Tribute To an Old Friend

photo: Brad Coolidge

It is Willie Nelson who has defined the best of country music for decades of fans, but it was songwriter Harlan Howard who best defined what country music is when he called it succinctly “Three chords and the truth.” Though that might be the Country Music Hall of Famer’s most quoted line, it’s Harlan Howard’s catalog of songs that just like Willie Nelson’s career, defines what country music is in its greatest form, and for many generations.

“Streets of Baltimore,” “Life Turned Her That Way,” and “Tiger By The Tail” are just some of the songs that Harlan Howard hung his career on, and are songs that Willie Nelson has selected for his next project called I Don’t Know A Thing About Love to be released March 3rd as a tribute to Harlan. A few more Howard tracks that didn’t make the cut but most country fans will recognize immediately are “I Fall To Pieces,” “Heartaches By The Number,” and “Why Not Me.”

Harlan Howard was considered the “Dean of Nashville Songwriters,” and not just because of all the incredible cuts he amassed, but how he was welcoming to everyone to his legendary guitar pulls, and made it a point to tutor and shepherd promising songwriters when they came to town. Harlan Howard taught Nashville how to write country music for half a century, and had the respect of everyone young and old.

In some ways, you could consider this upcoming tribute album as payback to Harlan Howard from Willie. During the CMA Awards week in 1971, Howard invited Willie Nelson to one of his famous guitar pulls. Willie was picking on Trigger, which already had the famous hole in it. It was during the pull that Willie played the 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.

In that room that night was famous producer Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records. He asked Willie to sign with the label on the spot. This is what gave Willie Nelson the freedom to record what he wanted, with who he wanted, and it helped spark the “Outlaw” revolution.

I Don’t Know A Thing About Love was produced by longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon, with a studio crew that includes Larry Paxton (bass, tic tac bass), Lonnie Wilson (drums), Bobby Terry (acoustic guitar, electric guitar), James Mitchell (electric guitar), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Jim “Moose” Brown (piano, synthesizer, B3 organ, Wurlitzer), Wyatt Beard (background vocals), and Melonie Cannon (background vocals).

Ahead of the new album, Willie Nelson has released the old Harlan Howard classic “Busted.” It was first recorded by Johnny Cash with the Carter Family in 1963 and became a hit. Ray Charles and others have recorded the song as well.

Willie Nelson turns 90 in April, and if you’re wondering if he has anything left in the tank, his four Grammy nominations say, “yes.” Willie’s up for Best Country Solo Performance (“Live Forever” from Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver); Best Country Song (“I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die,” songwriting award, from A Beautiful Time); Best Country Album (A Beautiful Time); and Best Roots Gospel Album (The Willie Nelson Family). We’ll find out if he wins of February 5th.

I Don’t Know A Thing About Love is now available for pre-order.

Track List:

1. Tiger By The Tail
2. The Chokin’ Kind
3. Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)
4. Life Turned Her That Way
5. I Don’t Know A Thing About Love
6. Streets Of Baltimore
7. Busted
8. She Called Me Baby
9. Too Many Rivers
10. Beautiful Annab

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