- Peter Blackstock American-Statesman Staff
“I run up and down the road, making music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway
And I woke up still not dead again today.”
— “Still Not Dead,” Willie Nelson
A 21st-century update of Mark Twain’s famous quip about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated, “Still Not Dead” is the song on Willie Nelson’s new album that has received the most attention, for obvious reasons. Nelson, who turns 84 this weekend, has increasingly fielded inquiries about his health, especially after a string of canceled shows earlier this year. Add the false rumors that spread all too easily online — “the internet said I had passed away,” he sings in the song’s second line — and it’s easy to see why Nelson and his co-writer/producer Buddy Cannon wanted to have a little fun with it.
The result is another instant classic in the catalogue of a songwriter who’s written dozens of them. What’s most remarkable, though, about “God’s Problem Child” — released Friday on Sony/Legacy — is just how strong the entire album is from start to finish.
It’s not that Nelson hadn’t already proved he can still make great records. Last year’s “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin” won him his first Grammy in almost a decade, and he’s released more than a half-dozen albums since turning 80 in 2013. They’ve included a tribute to Ray Price, a collaboration with Merle Haggard (the last album Haggard made), an archival project with his sister, Bobbie Nelson, and an album of almost all new original material (2014’s “Band of Brothers”).
But “God’s Problem Child” reaches another level. It’s arguably Nelson’s best album since the 1990s, when records such as “Spirit,” “Teatro” and “Across the Borderline” marked a creative renaissance for the Texas legend who forever changed Austin’s musical identity in the 1970s.
The key is a near-perfect balance between Willie as songwriter and as interpreter. For all the iconic songs Nelson has written — “Crazy,” “Night Life,” “On the Road Again,” “Funny How Times Slips Away” and “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” just for starters — he’s equally famous for the songs of others that he made his own. Think “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” or “Whiskey River,” or “Always on My Mind.”
His own songs remain essential to Nelson’s continuing vitality as a creative spirit. As on “Band of Brothers,” he’s co-writing with Cannon throughout, with six more cuts in addition to “Still Not Dead.” Most of them dig deeper than that single’s quick humor.
On “True Love,” Nelson deftly strikes a balance between darkness and light both melodically and lyrically, concluding that his true love is “worth all the heartaches and I’d do it all again.” A more somber side of “Still Not Dead” comes on the reflective, slow-paced “It Gets Easier,” as Nelson observes that getting older means “it gets easier to say ‘not today.’”
The closest Nelson gets to political here is “Delete and Fast Forward,” suggesting that last year’s election drama is nothing new: “It’s just one big circle and it’s beginning again.” (He tips his hand toward the end when he sings, “We had a chance to be brilliant and we blew it again.”) His best wordplay comes on “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own,” though the notion brings to mind what a wonderful job Nelson might do with fellow Texan Butch Hancock’s “My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own.”
Toward that end, Nelson’s choice of other writers’ material on this record is razor-sharp. The title track, a Jamey Johnson/Tony Joe White tune, features vocal cameos from both of them along with Leon Russell, in his final studio recording. Together, the four singers form a sort of Southern swamp-rat Highwaymen, steeping this Delta blues number in deep soulful groove.
Equally magnificent, if entirely different in tone, is “Butterfly” by Sonny Throckmorton and Mark Sherrill. With instrumental support as light and lithe as the song’s title would imply, Nelson shows he can carry off an achingly beautiful ballad with as much grace as he did when he sang timeless classics on his best-selling “Stardust” in 1978.
The two tracks on this collection that linger the longest, though, are the ones where Nelson faces the reality of his age head-on. “Old Timer,” written by Donnie Fritts and Lenny LeBlanc, and “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” from Gary Nicholson, are songs no one could ever sing better than Willie does.
On the former, Nelson reminds himself that “you’ve still got a lot of life and a song to sing.” even as he admits that “one by one, your friends have crossed over.” Such a warm and welcoming singer for so many decades — and he still is throughout this record — Willie reveals the weight of every single year, every last day, when he closes the song by reaching the lowest end of his vocal range to tell us that he looks in the mirror and sees “an old-timer.”
“He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” which closes the album, is even better. Nicholson almost surely wrote this tribute to Haggard with Nelson in mind: “I would sing some songs he wrote, and he would sing a few of mine/The music made us brothers till the end.” Ben Haggard, Merle’s son, joins in on guitar and backing vocals as Willie sings his old friend back home. It’s the finest moment on a Willie Nelson record that everyone needs to hear.
Live in Austin: Expect to hear many of its songs when Nelson headlines his annual Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas. The all-day affair also will feature performances by Sheryl Crow, Kacey Musgraves, Jamey Johnson, Steve Earle, Margo Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Turnpike Troubadours, Hayes Carll, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Johnny Bush, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Insects vs. Robots, Raelyn Nelson Band and Folk Uke. (The last four of those acts feature members of Nelson’s extended family.)
More music from Austin
Here’s a look at a half-dozen other albums released recently by noteworthy local artists:
Gary Clark Jr., “Live North America 2016.” If you like your GCJ long-form, with plenty of room for jams and solos, this one’s for you. While we’d like to hear more new material from Austin’s shooting-star guitar-slinger — he’s now released a live-album recap after each of his two Warner Bros. studio albums — “North America 2016” does document Clark in a different phase than 2014’s “Live” did. A telling comparative observation: Though “When My Train Pulls In” and “Numb” both appeared on the 2014 live disc (as well as his 2012 Warner Bros. debut “Blak and Blu”), the versions here are longer, with the former extending to nearly 10 minutes. And while there’s no new original material, covers of Jimmy Reed’s “Honest I Do” and Elmore James’ “My Baby’s Gone” further tip Clark’s hand toward his deep blues roots (fitting for a co-owner of the revived Antone’s nightclub). Seven tracks come from 2015’s “The Story of Sonny Boy Slim,” including “Shake,” which picks up a spark with soul sensation Leon Bridges and saxophonist Jeff Dazey sitting in. Live in Austin: Clark opens for Tom Petty at the Erwin Center on May 2.
Darden Smith, “Everything.” Holed up at Austin’s Arlyn Studios last year, Smith brought aboard a cast full of aces: bassist Roscoe Beck (Leonard Cohen), drummer JJ Johnson (Tedeschi Trucks Band), keyboardist Michael Ramos (Patty Griffin), guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan) and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield (too many to mention). It’s a testament to the respect in-demand musicians have for Smith that they all answered the call. The resulting dozen tracks feature the smart, sophisticated folk-rock Smith has delivered for three decades. He frequently seeks reasons for hope at a time when it seems hard to find, as on “Blessings,” “Soul Searching” and “Love Will Win the War.” Tunes written with fellow native Texans Bruce Robison and Radney Foster help Smith broaden his horizons, though the most fruitful co-write is with Matraca Berg on “Firefly,” an exquisitely melodic and instantly memorable charmer. The title track harkens back to “All I Want Is Everything,” Smith’s 1989 collaboration with Boo Hewerdine; but where Smith sounded like a young firebrand making demands then, he now sings as a wiser, gentler soul who wants everything “so I can give it all away.” Live in Austin: Smith plays May 13 as part of the Wyldwood House Concert Series.
Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy.” Sometimes known for humorous or novelty songs, Sweeney smartly takes a deeper dive on “Trophy,” her fourth album. Writing frequently with Grammy-winning tunesmith Lori McKenna, Sweeney turns out a strong 10-song set that displays the fullest range yet of her talents. Some (“Better Bad Idea,” “Why People Change”) retain the electric kick of her hard-won barroom bona fides. But she’s best when she gets quieter and lets the bittersweetness of her beautiful vocals shine, as on the childless-regret ballad “Bottle by My Bed” and a brilliant resurrection of Chris Wall’s classic waltz “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.” Live in Austin: Sweeney plays Aug. 19 at Stubb’s.
BoDeans, “Thirteen.” It’ll probably always be associated with Milwaukee, but the band that rose to prominence in the 1980s for its rootsy brand of American rock ’n’ roll has had strong local ties since co-founder Kurt Neumann (the sole remaining original member) moved to Austin in the mid-1990s. “Thirteen,” which is, yes, the 13th BoDeans album, features Neumann playing almost all the instruments, with the exception of Austinites Stefano Intelisano on piano on “My Hometown” and Bukka Allen on accordion on “Maggie’s Bar.” The music is straight up the alley of classic BoDeans records from the past, with strong hooks centered on Neumann’s richly melodic voice. “Sway,” placed near the middle of the record, is a gorgeous instrumental track.
Bluebonnets, “Tonewrecker.” With primary lead vocalist Dominique Davalos on bass flanked by twin-engine guitar-slingers Kathy Valentine and Eve Monsees, the Bluebonnets boast perhaps the most formidable front line in all of Austin music. Elements of blues, punk, garage and pop intertwine to create a sound that’s best described simply as full-on rock ’n’ roll, in an age where that basic form seems increasingly a lost art. It’s alive and well in the swaggering sneer of Davalos, who infuses ragers such as “My Private Jet” and “Don’t Walk, Run” (nice play off the old Ventures song title) with attitude and charisma to burn. Monsees and Valentine each step out for a lead vocal as well, on “Bye Bye Baby” and “Make Me Shake” respectively. But there’s no letting up when they take the wheel; this is relentless ferocity from start to finish, for 11 songs in 36 minutes. Live in Austin: The Bluebonnets play April 28 at the Continental Club.
Curtis McMurtry, “The Hornet’s Nest.” Nobody in Austin is doing anything quite like McMurtry right now, and his talent as a lyricist is well above most young songwriters in town. The latter is no surprise, given his pedigree — Americana troubadour James and renowned novelist Larry are his father and grandfather — but Curtis has clearly found his own voice. “The Hornet’s Nest” is an adventure in mood swings, from the self-doubt of “Smooth as Thorns” to the playful yet mean-spirited “Loves Me More” to the complicated heartbreak of “Rebecca” to the resolute determination of “Shot at the Title.” His sweet tenor vocals disguise those many moods, cast against keenly sophisticated instrumental arrangements that give the songs a jazz-folk-pop cabaret feel. Live in Austin: McMurtry plays May 4 at Winflo Osteria.