At the very end of an absolutely swinging version of the 1943 roots gem “Home in San Antone” on Willie Nelson’s new album, Heroes, you can hear the singer add, “that’s a great track.” He’s right, it is a great track. If he had said it about the album as a whole, he would have been right as well. In Heroes, Nelson, his sons, and a friend or two have put together a compilation of some things old and some things new and produced themselves one great album. But then it’s Willie Nelson, what else would you expect.
The album opens with a new take on the Wayne Carson composition “A Horse Called Music,” the title song of 1989 Nelson album. It’s a great song, and here he is joined by Merle Haggard for one hell of a duet. It is an auspicious beginning. This is followed by a new swinger, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” written by Nelson himself along with a gaggle of his cohorts. Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson join Nelson on the vocal. There are three songs written by Lukas Nelson (who chimes in on the vocals): “No Place to Fly,” “Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her,” and “The Sound of Your Memory.”
Producer Buddy Cannon’s catchy little three-quarter time tune, “That’s All There Is to This Song,” is one of two solo pieces for Nelson. The other is his cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” which closes the album. Cannon also collaborated with Nelson and son Micah on “Come On Back Jesus,” which looks to Jesus and John Wayne to set the crazy modern world straight. “Hero,” the down home title song, is another Nelson composition. Jamey Johnson and Billy Joe Shaver are along for the ride. Lukas joins his father for a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.”
Complementing these new pieces, along with “My Home in San Antone,” are other roots classics including “My Window Faces the South” and “Cold War With You,” a metaphoric stretch worthy of the metaphysical poets. Ray Price guests on the track. Speaking of guests, Sheryl Crow steps in with Lukas and his dad for a bluesy version of the Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan tune “Come on Up to the House.” I’m not sure why, but it’s my favorite track on an album filled with favorite tracks.
Musical backing on the album is provided by Kevin “Swine” Grantt (bass), Bobby Terry (electric, acoustic guitars), Jim “Moose” Brown (piano, Wurlitzer, B-3 organ), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), Tony Creasman (drums), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), and Lukas Nelson (electric guitar)—not to mention Nelson and his guitar, Trigger. These guys can swing with the best of them.
Approaching his eighties, Nelson’s voice sounds as good as it ever did, rich and honest. Whether he’s singing something from the roots pantheon or some new pop rock hit, whether some brand new composition or a song from the forties, he delivers the goods. This is the first album released under Nelson’s renewed collaboration with Legacy Recordings. With a little luck, Heroes will only be the first of many new albums to come.