Look at those who’ve endured the longest in popular music and you’ll notice the thing they all have in common is they know who they are and what they are capable of. The really good ones have managed the fine art of both staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding like they’re going through the motions. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. With some it’s the force of their personality which keeps them interesting while others simply have a quality which makes them endlessly endearing to generation after generation of fans.
Since his career started back in the 1950s, Willie Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music (“Crazy”), had a crossover hit on popular music charts before the word was even fashionable (“Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”) and put out albums of everything from jazz standards to pop songs from the 1940s. He is beloved by everybody from the farmers whose plight he raises awareness of with his annual Farm Aid, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and no matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.
You think a guy who just turned 80 would be slowing down now, but not Nelson. He recently signed with a new record label, Sony Music’s Legacy Recordings. His third album with them, To All the Girls, is being released September 24, 2013. Each of the 18 songs on the disc features Nelson in a duet with, as the title suggests, a different female singer. Reading down through the list of singers who have joined him for these duets is like looking over a “who’s who” of country music. From great old ladies Loretta Lynn (“Somewhere Between”), Dolly Parton (“From Here to the Moon and Back”), and Emmylou Harris (“Dry Lightning”), to new stars Carrie Underwood (“Always On My Mind”) and Shelby Lynne (“Till the End of the World”).
The roster isn’t limited to women from country music either as he’s also joined by another ageless wonder, Mavis Staples for a rendition of the gospel classic “Grandma’s Hands” and Norah Jones on “Walkin”. The one thing all of these women have in common is they each have their own distinct style. It’s highly unlikely anybody is ever going to confuse Parton, Lynn, Staples or any of them with anyone else. Yet such is Nelson’s ability, no matter who he’s performing with, it sounds like they were made for each other.
What’s always amazed me about Nelson has been his ability to sing even the most sentimental and contrived song yet somehow or other make it emotionally honest. There’s something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. As a result, while there are some singers on this recording who I normally wouldn’t listen to as I find their singing contrived, paired with Nelson I enjoyed their performances. Maybe they absorbed something of his integrity, or perhaps his talent is so vast it can cover up another’s deficiencies. Whatever the reason, no matter who he’s teamed with on this recording the results are just fine.
Of course some of the performances are better than others and to my mind there were a couple in particular that stood out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on the previously mentioned “Grandma’s Hands” is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. Neither of them have an insincere bone in their bodies and it comes through with every note and word they sing. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing. They turn this very simple song into a testimony on the power of a grandmother’s love to inspire somebody for a lifetime. Like all the best gospel music it will move you and make you feel better about yourself after listening to it whether you believe in the message or not.
Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton probably aren’t to everyone’s taste. Both still carry the twang of their Tennessee backwoods upbringing in their voices like a flag proclaiming their heritage. However, unlike those who might try and affect this accent and end up being annoying, in the mouths of these two grand old ladies of country music, it’s the sound of authenticity making their words ring true. Listening to them partnered with Nelson and the mix of their respective voices is like hearing the roots of popular music come alive in song. There’s a power in each of their respective voices which is capable of sending a shiver up your spine. Hearing them together is as fine a treat as you could ask for.
I only recently discovered Shelby Lynne and was impressed with her the first time I listened to her. So I was happy to see Nelson had included her on this disc. The version the two of them do of “Till the End of the World” is both touching and interesting. Lynne has one of those great throaty voices which gives all her material character. She sounds like a real human being singing about issues which mean something to her. The combination of her and Nelson’s smooth-as-properly-aged-whiskey voice makes for a great meeting of sounds and turns the song into something special.
Willie Nelson is 80 years old, but you’d never know it listening to him sing. While some people’s voices become rougher as they age, his has become increasingly velvety. Like the best of that material, it has a surprising amount of texture. So, while it laps against your ear like liquid gold, it has enough of an edge to it to give it emotional depth. Hearing his voice mix and contrast with the various women accompanying him on this collection of songs is a reminder of what an incredible talent he is. For no matter who he works with, or what they sound like, he sounds like he was meant to sing with them. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace you’ll listen to over and over again.