Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Willie Nelson

  • Yesterday's Wine [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • Shotgun Willie [Atlantic, 1973] B+
  • Phases and Stages [Atlantic, 1974] A-
  • Red Headed Stranger [Columbia, 1975] B-
  • The Sound in Your Mind [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • To Lefty from Willie [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • Stardust [Columbia, 1978] A-
  • Face of a Fighter [Lone Star, 1978] A-
  • Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Tougher Than Leather [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Without a Song [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Me and Paul [Columbia, 1985] A-
  • A Horse Called Music [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971) [Rhino, 1991] A
  • Across the Borderline [Columbia, 1993] ***
  • Moonlight Becomes You [Justice, 1994] ***
  • Healing Hands of Time [Liberty, 1994] *
  • Spirit [Island, 1996] A-
  • I Let My Mind Wander [Kingfisher, 1997] A-
  • Teatro [Island, 1998] **
  • Night and Day [Pedernales/FreeFalls, 1999] A
  • Milk Cow Blues [Island, 2000] *
  • Rainbow Connection [Island, 2001] A-
  • The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud
  • You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker [Lost Highway, 2006] ***
  • Live From Austin TX [New West, 2006] **
  • Songbird [Lost Highway, 2006] *
  • Moment of Forever [Lost Highway, 2008] **
  • Texas in My Soul [American Beat, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • American Classic [Blue Note, 2009] B+
  • Naked Willie [RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2009] ***
  • Lost Highway [Lost Highway, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Country Music [Rounder, 2010] **
  • Remember Me, Vol. 1 [R&J, 2011] **
  • Heroes [Legacy, 2012] B+
  • Let's Face the Music and Dance [Legacy, 2013] *
  • Band of Brothers [Legacy, 2014] ***
  • Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin [Legacy, 2016] **
  • For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price [Legacy, 2016] *
  • God's Problem Child [Legacy, 2017] *
  • Last Man Standing [Legacy, 2018] A
  • My Way [Legacy, 2018] *
  • A Beautiful Time [Legacy, 2022] A
  • I Don't Know a Thing About Love [Legacy, 2023] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Yesterday's Wine [RCA Victor, 1971]
The great Nashville songsmith has never bowled anyone over with his singing, and here he finds the concept to match. Since "perfect man" has already been and gone, he announces at the outset, "the voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest, and I have been chosen as the most likely candidate." Most of these songs--though not the two best, "Yesterday's Wine" and "Me and Paul"--are on religious themes, and on more than one he seems to be playing the part of God's messenger, which tends to limit their general relevance. But if that's how he got to "These Are Difficult Times," maybe it was worth it. Anyway, sometimes his nonsinging bowls me over. B+

Shotgun Willie [Atlantic, 1973]
This attempt to turn Nelson into a star runs into trouble when it induces him to outshout Memphis horns or Western swing, and his unaccompanied-acoustic version of "A Song for You" takes some getting used to. After a while, though, you notice that you're noticing every song. And then you realize that the two you notice most--the slyly vengeful "Sad Songs and Waltzes" and the cuckold's tragedy "She's Not for You"--are also the two oldest. A star, eh? B+

Phases and Stages [Atlantic, 1974]
Although the musical concept-theme that pops up here and there is unnecessarily explicit, the songs more than justify it. On the woman's side of the breakup, try "Washing the Dishes" (soap gets in your eyes) or "Sister's Coming Home"/"Down at the Corner Beer Joint" (going home to mother as non-joke); on the man's, "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" (but it is) and "Pick Up the Tempo" (on the rebound). What's more, Nelson's combination of soft-spoken off-key and battered honky-tonk matches the bare, responsive country music Jerry Wexler has gotten out of the Muscle Shoals regulars. Payoff: the two Mike Lewis string arrangements are actually climactic. A-

Red Headed Stranger [Columbia, 1975]
This tale of a murdering preacher wild in his abandonment has inspired much loose talk about violence and Western myth. Ed Ward argues that the Stranger is a fantasy of vengeance rejected on side two, but all I hear is that he's redeemed by another woman there--if she leaves him, he'll kill her too. Some of the individual pieces are quite nice, but the gestalt is the concept album at its most counterproductive--the lyrics render the nostalgic instrumental parts unnecessarily ironic and lose additional charm in narrative context. B-

The Sound in Your Mind [Columbia, 1976]
"That Lucky Old Sun" sounds better than "Amazing Grace"; Steve Fromholz's "I'd Have to Be Crazy" sounds better than Willie's "The Sound in Your Mind." Willie had better watch it--Major Artists can't grind out Product the way Country Music Stars do or people'll start thinkin' they're slippin'. B-

To Lefty from Willie [Columbia, 1977]
Although Nelson earned his legend as a songwriter, he's turning into a singer now that profit-taking time has come--does broaden one. The amazing thing is that he gets away with it. On this heartfelt if opportune farewell to Lefty Frizzell, his cracks and creaks and precisely conversational timing hold their own against the more conventionally exquisite singing of Merle Haggard or Frizzell himself. Of course, the material doesn't hurt. B+

Stardust [Columbia, 1978]
I can always do without "Unchained Melody," and at times I wish he'd pick up the tempo. Basically, though, I'm real happy this record exists, not just because Nelson can be a great interpretive singer--his "Moonlight in Vermont" is a revelation--but because he's provided me with ten great popular songs that I've never had much emotional access to. Standards that deserve the name--felt, deliberate, schmaltz-free. A-

Face of a Fighter [Lone Star, 1978]
It's been four years since Nelson put together an album of the mournful country love songs that earned him an outlaw's independence, and even that was a concept job. These ten slow songs--maybe six special, no clinkers--were recorded thirteen years before that, apparently as demos, and the music is wonderful. Nelson's voice has never come on more fragile or deliberate--you can almost hear him figuring out what commonplace he's going to illuminate next--and his bland sounds equally sure-footed. Rarely is there a lick you haven't heard somewhere before, but the lick always seems just a leetle different, which may be because it's so exquisitely timed and may be because it's just a leetle different. A-

Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson [Columbia, 1979]
Needless to say, he also outsings Kristofferson, and without much extra in the god-given department, though the high note that climaxes "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" is a doozy. But his inborn tact is wasted on this material. As Al Green, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, and even Ray Price have proven, the way to put such arrant corn across is to pull out the stops. B-

Somewhere Over the Rainbow [Columbia, 1981]
Nelson's best since Stardust isn't quite the rehash it seems to be. The often uptempo music is suffused with Western swing, the standards not all that standard. Which would be great if only Nelson's ecumenicism didn't run in the direction of "My Mother's Eyes," the aforementioned "Over the Rainbow," and a jazzed-up "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." B+

Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) [Columbia, 1981]
Nelson's strength is hitting a song on the button while glancing off in the other direction, and a compilation is no way to highlight it--the necessarily haphazard structure makes him seem not so much casual as indolent. He needs a little album structure--standards, collaboration, half-assed narrative--to tone things up. Song for song, relaxing; on the whole, mushy. B+

Tougher Than Leather [Columbia, 1983]
In the end, I don't know what the fuck this supposed concept album is trying to say, and if Nelson does he should continue to keep it to himself--something about murder and honor and other romantic clichés. But since he felt duty-bound to write the thing, it does of necessity include a number of those modern rarities, new Willie Nelson songs! Including two that somebody else might actually want to cover: the throwaway coda "Nobody Slides, My Friend" and the new-cowboy advisory "Little Old-Fashioned Karma." Plus, for (symbolic) life, a rousing new version of "Beer Barrel Polka"! C+

Without a Song [Columbia, 1983]
With music as subtle as Nelson's you wonder whether you're imagining things. Maybe we've just had it with his shtick--maybe a Martian couldn't tell the difference between this and Stardust. Then again, what do Martians know? Not only is Nelson choosing cornier material--self-serving schlock like the title song, awkward fripperies like "A Dreamer's Holiday"--but the relaxed, let's-wing-it delicacy has simply disappeared. When he tries at all, he usually oversings, and he's finally hitting the wrong clinkers. If you don't believe me, compare this "Autumn Leaves" to Stardust's timeless "September Song." Or ask yourself whether Julio Iglesias doesn't sound right at home on "As Time Goes By." C+

Me and Paul [Columbia, 1985]
Nothing like a concept to nudge an interpreter's near misses closer to direct hits, but not any concept will do. On 1984's City of New Orleans, Willie added less than nothing to the self-consciously distanced sentimentality of country songs manqué that had their own integrity coming from Arlo Guthrie, Danny O'Keefe, even Dave Loggins. Here the album is dedicated to his hellraising longtime drummer Paul English and the self-conscious distance is from himself. Backed by his road band and singing three Billy Joe Shaver sure shots and nine mostly pre-CBS songs of his own, many of which you'll be certain you know but fail to locate in your record collection, he comes up with his most unassuming and inevitable album since the ten 1961 demos of 1978's Face of a Fighter. A-

A Horse Called Music [Columbia, 1989]
Over the four or five albums of a commercial decline that's probably permanent, he's proven more George Jones than Merle Haggard. That is, he's a genius interpreter who always stands a chance of hitting you where you live--even though, like Merle, he still occasionally writes his own, and because of rather than despite the show of laziness the two share. Assuming you can stomach many strings and two pretentious clinkers (the title trope plus one called "If I Were a Painting"), this is his best of the period, maybe because he put the least effort into it--it's when he tries to sing powerfully, or traffics in concepts like the '50s standards of What a Wonderful World, that he flounders. Sometimes, of course, his modest efforts come across flat; sometimes, no doubt, they really are lazy. But most of these murmured tributes to good love getting better and gone bad are touching and apt. B

Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971) [Rhino, 1991]
It wasn't a penchant for rock mythos and hairstyle that crossed him over--it was pure-pop generalizations and jazz timing. "Am I Blue," a 1929 copyright for Hollywood lyricist Grant Clarke, sounds no more and no less a natural-born chestnut than "Crazy" or "Funny How Time Slips Away"; conversational strokes like "One in a Row" and "Opportunity to Cry" clue you in with their titles and proceed to amaze you anyway. "Me and Paul"'s understated outlaw narrative points to Red Headed Stranger, but it represents a break. Sooner or later this country nonconformist will go back to his roots and make an album called Stardust. A

Across the Borderline [Columbia, 1993]
his best in a coon's age, and a touch too artful all around ("She's Not for You," "Don't Give Up," "American Tune") ***

Moonlight Becomes You [Justice, 1994]
Stardust for swinging lovers ("Moonlight Becomes You," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone") ***

Healing Hands of Time [Liberty, 1994]
10 standards--six Nelson, four ASCAP--meet more orchestral instruments than you can shake a stick at ("Night Life," "There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone") *

Spirit [Island, 1996]
So bare-boned in language, instrumentation, and melodic contour you barely notice it at first, this turns out to be Nelson's strongest new album in over a decade, his most indelible songwriting in at least two. His latest case of love lost leaves him meeting his maker but not his mortality--if his "life will never be the same again," it's not because he's gonna keel over like some 63-year-old. In fact, the pain has fired him up, so that he not only surrounds the winning "We Don't Run" with new standards, but plays the hell out of that acoustic guitar with the big hole in it. A-

I Let My Mind Wander [Kingfisher, 1997]
Hardly new music. Nelson's stark, efficient Pamper demos, cut without fuss in 1961, briefly surfaced on Face of a Fighter at Stardust time and are the best things on Rhino's messy three-CD collectorama. Selections vary--this version omits "Face of a Fighter" itself, a loss. But as a songwriter he was on a roll back then, and nobody understood his singing, which means Rhino's Nite Life and RCA's Essential Willie Nelson are cluttered with off-the-rack Nashville arrangements that become a classic catalogue only in spite of their tailoring. These songs are less famous; no "Funny How Time Slips Away" lies in wait. But "Healing Hands of Time," "You Wouldn't Cross the Street To Say Goodbye," and "I Let My Mind Wander" will surprise the hell out of you, especially after you realize you haven't heard them a thousand times before. A-

Teatro [Island, 1998]
for all Daniel Lanois's pet drummers, an honorable attempt to recreate his live unflash ("Everywhere I Go," "I've Loved You All Over the World") **

Night and Day [Pedernales/FreeFalls, 1999]
In the Nashville era, country instrumental albums have been models of dexterous precision and dispatch dominated by the sterile expanses of the Chet Atkins catalogue, a tradition that shares as much with this gift from God as Nelson's singing does with Brooks & Dunn's. Even simpatico analogies--early string bands, the looser Western swing units, the relaxation Merle Haggard's guys go for, or for that matter Django Reinhardt--don't suggest the casual musicality this long-running off-and-on octet achieves without apparent effort every time it sits down, which happens 150 nights a year. Musicians for life who've achieved a satori that barely skirts virtuosity, they adore the melody. But they adore it after their own fashion, which is Willie's fashion whether he's singing or, as here, only playing lead guitar--pretty much on the note when you listen up, only you don't because the timbre and phrasing are so talky. Is this a species of jazz? Given the awkwardness of the session Nelson once cut with jazz-identified Nashvillian Jackie King, I wouldn't bother calling it that. It's just Willie, who wants folks to think everything he does is simpler than it is and in some mystical sense may be right. A

Milk Cow Blues [Island, 2000]
Truth to tell, blues isn't his métier ("Fools Paradise," "Texas Flood"). *

Rainbow Connection [Island, 2001]
It's another kiddie record gone to seed by another codger who's been around too long to believe in the end of the rainbow. Or has he? A typically ramshackle one-off cut without drums in Nelson's home studio over Christmas break, it makes too much room for daughter Amy and, for some reason, the songs of Mickey Newbury (maybe Mickey's kids could use the royalties). But what you can expect to pay for the illusion of effortlessness is the reality of effortlessness, which is that sometimes it falls on its face. Here that doesn't happen often. "Playmate" and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" are born again, and where once it was agony to hear Newbury intone the half-past-dead "not all my God-like thoughts, Lord, are defiled," from Nelson that's just one plain truth among many. The truth he wrote himself just last year wants us to know that heaven is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A-

The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud

You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker [Lost Highway, 2006]
He owns the title tune now too ("Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age," "Dusty Skies"). ***

Live From Austin TX [New West, 2006]
September 1990--making hash of tight versus loose with the same band as 15 years before and after ("Stay All Night," "Help Me Make It Through the Night"). **

Songbird [Lost Highway, 2006]
Now he knows--if he wants somebody who can't stop writing songs, better Harlan Howard than Ryan Adams ("Hallelujah," "$1000 Wedding"). *

Moment of Forever [Lost Highway, 2008]
More songs for an old man, though as ever he's sly about it ("Gravedigger," "The Bob Song"). **

Texas in My Soul [American Beat, 2008]
"Who Put All My Ex's in Texas" Choice Cuts

American Classic [Blue Note, 2009]
Not Stardust--because nothing is, because standards albums pack no conceptual kick anymore, and because producer Booker T. Jones was venturing into the unknown where producer Tommy LiPuma is just doing his cocktail-jazz tap dance. Still, the consistency of approach and material accentuates Nelson's barely perceptible evolution into not just an uncannily canny singer, not just a subtly swinging singer, but one of the greatest singers alive. He's talky, but he's always had heaps of high end and loads of low, and he's expended his resources so nonchalantly that at 76 he has more voice left than many with twice his natural endowment. He takes songs easy without throwing them away, and these were written to hold up their end of that bargain. B+

Naked Willie [RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2009]
Great that the countrypolitan schmaltz is magically excised--now if only he wasn't still trying to sing over it ("I Let My Mind Wander," "The Party's Over"). ***

Lost Highway [Lost Highway, 2009]
"Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," "Superman," "Ain't Goin' Down on Brokeback Mountain" Choice Cuts

Country Music [Rounder, 2010]
Defining the genre according to T Bone Burnett, but not the songs ("Pistol Packin' Mama," "Seaman's Blues"). **

Remember Me, Vol. 1 [R&J, 2011]
Great singer renders great songs with 80 to 90 percent of the professionalism his 78 years have imbued ("Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! [That Cigarette]," "Satisfied Mind") **

Heroes [Legacy, 2012]
How much you value this entry in the 79-year-old's unchartable catalogue--over and above "Roll Me Up," in which Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, and none other than Snoop Dogg top off the title with the genius punch line "and smoke me when I die"--depends on what you make of Willie's 23-year-old son Lukas, who sings on nine of the tracks and wrote three of them. I think one of his originals is aces, one self-sustaining, and one--which naturally goes on for six minutes--the worst thing on the record. But once I learned to distinguish him from the half-century older Billie Joe Shaver, who undercuts the solemn title track with his patented off-the-cuff aplomb, I decided that Lukas's stoned-hillbilly affect was just what his dad needed to distinguish this particular assortment of what-thes, why-hasn't-he-evers, and written-to-orders from rival entries in his unchartable catalogue. B+

Let's Face the Music and Dance [Legacy, 2013]
Not his dance album, silly, this is Willie Nelson--just one of his after-80-you-get-to-sing-whatever-you-want albums ("Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love") *

Band of Brothers [Legacy, 2014]
Only the song about songwriting rises above Billy Joe's "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore," but a few come surprisingly close ("The Songwriters," "Hard to Be an Outlaw," "The Git Go") ***

Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin [Legacy, 2016]
Great singer applies his old no-verses-please-we're-country trick to greater songbook. ("It Ain't Necessarily So," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off") **

For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price [Legacy, 2016]
83-year-old Country Icon Who (Supposedly) Had No Voice honors his stentorian elder loud and clear ("Heartaches by the Number," "Invitation to the Blues") *

God's Problem Child [Legacy, 2017]
Having invented outlaw, he long ago elected to transcend it ("Still Not Dead," "I Made a Mistake") *

Last Man Standing [Legacy, 2018]
As Nelson made room for his 85th birthday, he also beefed up his wee catalogue by adding 11 new tunes written with whippersnapping seventysomething Buddy Cannon. Their organizing concept is wisdom as opposed to age brags proper like "I don't want to be the last man standing / But wait a minute maybe I do." Sometimes the wisdom is rakish: "I gave you a ring then you gave me the finger," "He might not know me 'cause I'm low class / But tell him I'm the one with his head up his ass," "Bad breath is better than no breath at all." Sometimes it's paradoxical: "We were getting along just fine / Just me and me," "So many people, it sure is lonely." Sometimes it's just deep: "It's not something you get over / It's just something you get through." Always it sounds like it started with an idea that popped out of his mouth or sidled in from his subconscious, and who knows, maybe the weed helped--with an eye on retirement income, he's now marketing his own brand, Willie's Reserve. Over impeccably relaxed session work, that wisdom is delivered with a clarity and resonance that would inspire substance abusers half his age to quit drinking if they had his brains or soul. A

My Way [Legacy, 2018]
Casually expert interpretations that say more about Sinatra's ingrained gravitas than Nelson's practiced ease ("A Foggy Day," "Summer Wind") *

A Beautiful Time [Legacy, 2022]
I keep up with Nelson's phenomenal if not always knockout album output better than most--this one, released April 29 to mark his 89th birthday, makes 45 solo albums reviewed plus 16 collabs. To the best of my recollection, his 2021 Sinatra tribute--the second one, That's Life it's called--seemed de trop. But from Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton's jaw-dropping "That one sharp conversation is still the reason why" defining the leadoff "I'll Love You Till the Day I Die," this one had my number. The five new Buddy Cannon collabs including "I Don't Go to Funerals" plus Shawn Camp's title number would have sufficed and then some. Only just when you think he's fulfilled his death-defying quota and then some come two covers it's hard to believe he's new to: Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" implausibly topped by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and let us not forget Ringo Starr's "With a Little Help From My Friends." Both are transcendent, not to say death-defying. Can he top this come his 90th? Don't bet no. A

I Don't Know a Thing About Love [Legacy, 2023]
On what is said to be his 164th album including collaborations, compilations, and lives (this is the 63rd I've reviewed, 16 of them A's), the force of nature and walking cannabis commercial who'll turn 90 before April is over partakes of Michigan farmboy Harlan Howard's extraordinary book, which ended up containing some 4000 songs. Among Nelson's choices are the Ray Charles show-stopper "Busted," the Gram Parsons weeper "Streets of Baltimore," a famous Poe poem Howard set to music, and a title song that bespeaks both a nose for the hook and false modesty on the part of both principals. The worst thing I can say about this utterly obvious, utterly surefire album is that it doesn't begin to convince me that Nelson won't yet make a better one, which isn't even to mention posthumous treasures I bet they'll eventually unearth from some mislaid can or other. A-

See Also