Outlaw meets Jesus, at least on CD. The Willie Nelson family finds The Red Headed Stranger singing some of the most famous country-gospel songs, including “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams. This is his second album of 2021 – the first, That’s life, released in February, was an alluring collection of Frank Sinatra covers.
Willie Nelson turns 90 next April, and like most people his age, his thoughts are undoubtedly on the day he meets his creator. But no matter how old you are, country music is never far from God – sung like a member of the family. And that easy relationship is what gives albums like this their appeal. The music is neither cloying nor super-reverent, as the great AP Carter’s “Keep It On the Sunnyside” amply demonstrates. God is just part of the conversation. Dolly Parton likes to say that she talks to him all the time but she is not sure that he is always listening! It’s pretty laid back.
Five of the songs are from Nelson, including “I Thought About You, Lord” and “Too Sick to Pray”. It revisits “The Family Bible” originally recorded in 1971 on Yesterday’s wine, and has long been a staple of concerts. The song is still sometimes credited to Claude Gray, Paul Buskirk & Walt Breelan to whom Nelson sold it in 1957 for only $ 10!
For me, the highlight of the album is “All Things Must Pass”, the title track from George Harrison’s post-Beatles debut solo album. His Lukas Nelson takes the lead vocals, his distinctive clear tenor carrying the song into the air, the perfect harmonies. A wonderful reminder that Harrison is so much more than “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”.
“Why Me Lord” by Kris Kristofferson, often seen as a call for redemption by the man who wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down” – indeed, it is really the mirror image of this song – is a beautifully understated closer to the album.
In addition to Lukas, Nelson is joined by his sister Bobbi, his son Micah, his daughters Paula and Amy Nelson, as well as his longtime classmates Mickey Raphael, Billy English, Kevin Smith and Paul Smith. The latter was Nelson’s drummer – the two had played together since 1955. He died last year at the age of 87, and four songs on The Willie Nelson family, including “Laying My Burdens Down”, another composition by Nelson, are among the last recordings the two men have made together.
It’s a warm and heartwarming album that doesn’t require believing in any god to appreciate it. Just the Nelson family making great music together. Authentic, no frills. Hopefully Willie hasn’t been called up in the air yet.