Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price [extended]

  • Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970] B
  • The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970] C+
  • A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970] B+
  • Yesterday's Wine [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • Hag [Capitol, 1971] C+
  • Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971] B+
  • Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • Shotgun Willie [Atlantic, 1973] B+
  • I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973] C
  • It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973] B
  • Phases and Stages [Atlantic, 1974] A-
  • If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974] B
  • Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974] B+
  • Red Headed Stranger [Columbia, 1975] B-
  • The Sound in Your Mind [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • To Lefty from Willie [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978] A-
  • Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978] B
  • Waylon and Willie [RCA Victor, 1978] B+
  • Stardust [Columbia, 1978] A-
  • Face of a Fighter [Lone Star, 1978] A-
  • Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979] B+
  • Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • One for the Road [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • San Antonio Rose [Columbia, 1980] B+
  • The Way I Am [MCA, 1980] B+
  • Big City [Epic, 1981] B
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982] B+
  • In the Jailhouse Now [Columbia, 1982] A-
  • A Taste of Yesterday's Wine [Epic, 1982] B-
  • Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982] C+
  • The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982] B-
  • Old Friends [Columbia, 1982] B
  • Tougher Than Leather [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Without a Song [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Take It to the Limit [Columbia, 1983] B-
  • WWII [RCA Victor, 1983] B-
  • His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984] B-
  • Brand on My Heart [Columbia, 1985] A
  • Me and Paul [Columbia, 1985] A-
  • His Best [MCA, 1985] B+
  • Songwriter [MCA, 1985] B
  • A Friend in California [Epic, 1985] B+
  • Chill Factor [Epic, 1987] B-
  • 5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989] C+
  • A Horse Called Music [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990] A-
  • More of the Best [Rhino, 1990] A-
  • 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-
  • Super Hits [Columbia, 1997] *
  • Teatro [Island, 1998] **
  • Night and Day [Pedernales/FreeFalls, 1999] A
  • If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000] A-
  • Milk Cow Blues [Island, 2000] *
  • Me and the Drummer [Luck, 2000] ***
  • Rainbow Connection [Island, 2001] A-
  • Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001] **
  • The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud
  • Stars & Guitars [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud
  • Like Never Before [Hag, 2003] **
  • Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
  • Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005] ***
  • You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker [Lost Highway, 2006] ***
  • Live From Austin TX [New West, 2006] **
  • Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! [Bandit, 2006] *
  • Songbird [Lost Highway, 2006] *
  • Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007] A-
  • Moment of Forever [Lost Highway, 2008] **
  • Two Men With the Blues [Blue Note, 2008] **
  • Texas in My Soul [American Beat, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • American Classic [Blue Note, 2009] B+
  • Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009] A
  • Naked Willie [RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2009] ***
  • Lost Highway [Lost Highway, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Country Music [Rounder, 2010] **
  • I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010] B+
  • Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011] A-
  • 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] ***
  • December Day [Legacy, 2014] A
  • Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015] ***
  • 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-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970]
Despite some slack performances, this album--recorded live during Haggard's first appearance in the city he made famous and vice versa, and the only LP to date to include any version of the title song--is a passable sampler. The wild crowd and predictable fooforaw--he gets an official Okie pin and the key to the city--give it documentary value. But The Best of Merle Haggard is a lot more representative of a great iconoclast who's keeping it under wraps these days. Tell us, Merle, just which college dean do you respect? B

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970]
This is turning into a cartoon--once again a jingoistic anthem sells a live album. Don't hippie-haters worry that hippies might have more in common with Merle than they do? After all, he does boast about "living off the fat of our great land." C+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970]
An album of Bob Wills songs, featuring genuine Wills sidemen with Johnny Gimble (as well as Haggard himself) on fiddle? Now that's the Merle I trust. His uncountrypolitan formal sense has always gone along with a reverence for history, and his subtle, surprisingly tranquil, yet passionate singing style--all that yodel and straining head voice--was made for Wills's pop-jazz-country amalgam. B+

Willie Nelson: 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+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Hag [Capitol, 1971]
Four country hits on Haggard's first straight studio album in a year and a half, but only the simple goodbye song "I Can't Be Myself" escapes bathos. "The Farmer's Daughter," "I'm a Good Loser," and "I've Done It All" have an acceptably archetypal ring. Forget the rest--Hag already has. C+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971]
An honest two days' work, but don't let the keynote tune fool you into expecting a lot of class-conscious reminiscences. "California Cottonfields" and "Tulare Dust" are welcome, but this has its share of romantic pap, and the nostalgia of the title bubbles too close to the surface. Surprise: "Big Time Annie's Square," Hag's peace with the hippies. B+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972]
I object in principle to music-with-commentary albums, and Haggard is hardly as forthcoming with his "inner thoughts" as the notes promise. But despite its mawkish moments--especially Tommy Collins's dead-mommy song--the material defines Haggard's sensibility in a winning way, and since not one of the songs is great in itself I guess the commentary must do it. For controversy, there's interracial love. B+

Merle Haggard: The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972]
A misnomer--they mean The Safest of the Best, or Something for Everybody. No "Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" or "Branded Man," but both of his patriotic chores, "The Fightin' Side of Me" studio and "Okie From Muskogee" live (for the third time out of three on LP). Also: "Every Fool Has a String Section," I mean "Rainbow," and "No Reason to Quit," where his timbre, which has been softening perceptibly over the years, breaks definitively into self-pity. Plus lots of good stuff, of course, but still . . . B+

Willie Nelson: 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+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973]
The care Haggard put into his Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills tributes was palpable; this live-in-New Orleans-with-horns affair is slovenly. The two great moments are covers--"Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" and "Lovesick Blues," both originated by the legendary (blackface?) yodeler Emmett Miller. The lousy moments include current hits, overstated polyphony, and (how did we stand the wait?) a third live version of "Okie From Muskogee," this one a failed singalong. C

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973]
Merle hasn't played the poor boy in quite some time, but as he's turned into a legend he's all too often turned to gimmicky pseudo-concepts. This mainstream country album--his first since Hag--does more justice to its title than many of his more pretentious efforts. Nothing special, just marriage and its travails, but play it twice and you'll remember most of it. B

Willie Nelson: 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-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974]
Last time it was good to hear him go contemporary again. This time one of the two contemporary standouts sounds mysteriously like Bob Wills. The Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman remakes come across fresh and clean. The Ink Spots remake doesn't. B

Merle Haggard: Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974]
The man has been making them for less than a decade, and thirty is too damn many. But this is clearly where Haggard wants to show off his range, and the display, featuring more original songs than he's put in one place for a long time, is pretty impressive. There's a rip-roaring infidelity lyric that's definitely one of his genius pieces--"Old Man From the Mountain," it's called, complete with bluegrass shading. And though after that only "Honky Tonk Nighttime Man" and the Bob Wills/Lefty Frizzell cover are liable to be remembered, just about everything else is liable to be enjoyed. B+

Willie Nelson: 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-

Willie Nelson: 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-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977]
The album opens with the title song, about a Good Redneck, a class-conscious guy who pays his child support and wonders skeptically why he doesn't get ahead. It closes with "I'm a White Boy," about a Bad Redneck, a race-conscious guy who's too proud for welfare but would settle for a rich woman and/or an easy job. These are powerful pieces whether you like them or not, rendered with passionate sympathy and a touch of distance--his strongest in years. The "filler" includes covers from old standbys Williams and Wills and new favorites Delmore and Wells and an envoi to Lefty Frizzell as well as a gospel song and a running song and a sentimental standard that works (for once). Not a bad cut, and Capitol assembled it from the vaults after Haggard bolted for MCA. Why then did Hag himself put out such crap for three years? A-

Willie Nelson: 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+

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977]
God damn it--I could put together four discs of Hag that would never go below A minus, but Capitol hasn't offered me the job, so this two-disc mishmash will have to do. Dreck among the gems (Haggard has small knack for heart songs), muddled chronologically and thematically (a real waste with an artist so prolific and varied), and the fifth album to include a live version of "Okie From Muskogee." But at least it offers all four of his great outside-the-law songs, one per side. And it's budget-priced. A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978]
Because Haggard's singing gained resonance and flexibility as his songwriting flattened out, this factitious compilation cum concept album, one side devoted to Hank and one to Lefty, works better than his self-designed Bob Wills tribute. A-

Merle Haggard and the Strangers: Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978]
Continuing Capitol's reclamation/exploitation of his last five or six years with the label, this compiles his best originals from the period. Pretty conventional--when he does try to add a little something (I like the play on "grind" in the trucking song), it's rarely quite enough. B

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: Waylon and Willie [RCA Victor, 1978]
Commercially, this collaboration was a sure shot. They could have hammed it up or run through on automatic; they could even have avoided connecting altogether. But as it happens, this is the strongest album either has made in a while, as full of enthusiasm and devoid of posturing as a dressing-room singout. As in most dressing-room singouts, though, things get a little too loose at times--sometimes it's hard to tell whether they remember the words. B+

Willie Nelson: 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-

Willie Nelson: 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-

Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979]
Its impeccable simplicity and sensitivity gives Haggard's fourth and best album for MCA an autumnal feel reminiscent of recent comebacks by Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Granted, autumnal country music is easier to come by than autumnal rock and roll. But for Haggard, a mere forty-one but feeling it, the effect has thematic repercussions--and he's written a batch of wise songs to flesh it out. B+

Willie Nelson: 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-

Willie Nelson & Leon Russell: One for the Road [Columbia, 1979]
As the duo dueted swingingly through "I Saw the Light" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on the first of these four sides, I thought Willie had somehow gotten away with yet another triumphant nonalbum, but the slack B-Western self-parody of "Don't Fence Me In" and "Sioux City Sue" on side two set me straight. And sides three and four, where Leon accompanies Willie through another batch of stardust, are a mistake--even if the music were as good (compare this "Lucky Old Sun" to the one on Sound in Your Mind), it's too soon for a reprise. Frank Sinatra he's not. B-

Willie Nelson & Ray Price: San Antonio Rose [Columbia, 1980]
Nelson's groove has resembled a rut since he hit paydirt with Stardust, so give a cheer--maybe he's out of it. Country standards gone vaguely Western swing (in Nashville, without horns), this is nothing startling, but the false steps and lackadaisical jams of the live doubles and the Leon Russell job are gone. Price, who tends to posture in countrypolitan settings, thrives on the relaxed atmosphere. People who don't know the originals are going to fall in love. B+

Merle Haggard: The Way I Am [MCA, 1980]
"Wake Up," a devastating final-night plea that's one of Haggard's few great love songs, is the only original that transcends his usual poses, with "Sky-Bo"--"That's a new kind of hobo for planes"--the most cloying offender. But Haggard's chief value has been vocal ever since "Okie From Muskogee" saddled him with an image, and here his resonant, reflective baritone transforms three Ernest Tubb tunes from standards into timeless pieces of Americana. If Willie Nelson is Bing Crosby, Haggard's Sinatra. B+

Merle Haggard: Big City [Epic, 1981]
Having charged CBS considerable to slide into that notch on Billy Sherrill's gun, Merle signifies his seriousness by saving the flaky stuff for next year and clearing his throat before he sings. This isn't just for his cult--it's for the whole damn country audience. "My Favorite Memory" and "I Always Get Lucky With You" are love songs that may cloy eventually but at least stick for now. "Big City" and "Are the Good Times Really Over" are by the Merle who wrote that song about hippies. And just like on a real Nashville album, you can only tell how much filler there is by listening till you're sick of it. B

Willie Nelson: 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: 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+

Merle Haggard/Willie Nelson: Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982]
Haggard hasn't sung with so much care in years, which is obviously Nelson's doing--the difference between this "Half a Man" and the one on Going Where the Lonely Go is the difference between a husband who doesn't deserve to be cut down and a shit who does. But if Waylon brings out Willie's self-righteousness, Merle brings out his self-pity--Leona Williams doesn't want you to know it, but both of these boys have had more soft places to fall than any good man needs. B+

Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce: In the Jailhouse Now [Columbia, 1982]
The strained nasality of Pierce's endless string of '50s honky-tonk hits hasn't aged especially well, but his voice sure has--any suggestion of the callow or awkward is long since gone, which means that for somebody who wasn't there (like me and probably you), some of these remakes sound tougher and more vibrant than the originals. And the originals are honky-tonk standards for a reason. A-

Merle Haggard and George Jones: A Taste of Yesterday's Wine [Epic, 1982]
What might have been a historic get-together overplays both the good-old-boy camaraderie and the cry-in-your-beer sentimentality of country's male-bonding mode. Willie Nelson's keynote tune becomes completely bathetic, and that the nostalgia and mutual self-congratulation it presages are even bearable is one more proof of Jones's genius. B-

Merle Haggard: Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982]
Country legend or no, Haggard has no more business doing an album about broken relationships than Public Image Ltd. As a result, material that might be touching from a more austere singer is barely credible, and the three songs that open side two--one by Merle and Jimmy Dickens, one by Merle's off-and-on wife Leona Williams, and one by the austere Willie Nelson--ooze with the kind of moist self-pity ordinarily encountered only in leaders of the men's liberation movement. C+

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee: The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982]
This twenty-song mix-and-match isn't even monumental in theory, because two of these "kings and queens of country music" haven't earned their crowns--BL is a rock and roll princess who never really graduated, KK a frog ditto. But BL is also a pleasing bedroom-voiced journeywoman who turns in half of a surprisingly definitive "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning." The other half comes from WN, who's on nine cuts and sounds like he's thinking even when he also sounds like he's asleep. DP teams with WN on a surprisingly definitive "Everything's Beautiful in Its Own Way," but sounds more at home on the album's two utter unlistenables--"Ping Pong," in which DP at her cutesiest is outdone by KK at his klutziest, and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," in which DP kisses KK's warty little head and he croaks back. B-

Willie Nelson & Roger Miller: Old Friends [Columbia, 1982]
As a staunch admirer of "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" who's had less than no use for Miller since he got serious, I'm almost persuaded by this tribute-to-the-composer cum duo quickie. In fact, one more standout like "Old Friends" (including Ray Price), "Sorry Willie" (didn't know you thought she was your darlin'), and "When a House Is Not a Home" (one of Nelson's patented dry-eyed weepers) would make the difference. B

Willie Nelson: 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+

Willie Nelson: 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+

Willie Nelson with Waylon Jennings: Take It to the Limit [Columbia, 1983]
I enjoy this entry all right, with "Why Do I Have To Choose," a cheating song without a moral, the high point. But two things bother me. First, I prefer the songs I've never heard before to those I'm acquainted with to those I know well. Second, Waylon adds something. B-

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: WWII [RCA Victor, 1983]
Last time these two ganged up, Willie kept things honest, but this is Waylon's caper: Willie sings on only half the cuts, and sounds almost as full of himself as Waylon when he does. You'd never know "Mr. Shuck and Jive" was about Jimmy Webb himself, and Willie's own "Write Your Own Songs" makes you wonder whether that "purified country" "music executive" (same guy?) got on old tougher-than-leather's nerves by asking him for a few new ones. Waylon's solo turns on "The Last Cowboy Song" and "The Old Mother's Locket Trick" are the giveaway--the idea is to acknowledge that all this outlaw myth is shuck-and-jive and then make the shuck-and-jive itself seem mythic. But despite some distinguished tunes, only their duet on "Dock of the Bay," which has nothing to do with anything except its own lazy self, does the trick. B-

Merle Haggard: His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984]
Though at first this just seems sad, an objective person will admit that actually the songs are kind of memorable--in other words, not filler. He wrote most of them himself, too. But an objective person will also note that the two side-openers (and the two best tracks by a mile) both feature Willie Nelson. And wish he hadn't ruined a great stanza in "My Favorite Memory" with that stupid line about how she made their vacation a ball. And get kind of sick at the reactionary nostalgia of "Are the Good Times Really Over." And wonder whether Mrs. Hag really ended up in George Jones's bed like he claims in "C.C. Waterback," and whether Hag minded, and if not why not. And get sad all over again. B-

Willie Nelson & Hank Snow: Brand on My Heart [Columbia, 1985]
If you're tempted by Willie and Double K's Songwriter soundtrack, go on to the next graf. Best thing about his mucho pusho duet compilation with Hank Williams, Julio Iglesias, Lacy J. Dalton, and so forth is its title: Half Nelson. Highwaymen, featuring Johnny Cash on every track plus Waylon and Double K on many, is Outlaws III (or V, who's counting?), with Cash's "Committed to Parkview" providing a therapeutic shot of contemporary realism. Angel Eyes, backed by the Nashville-gone-jazzer guitar of Jackie King, is Nashville-gone-jazzy. The Faron Young collaboration Funny How Time Slips Away is almost on a level with Willie's Ray Price album, but Young's timbre has thickened so moistly you'd swear the Hank Williams he's now imitating is Jr. And so. I've always been put off by Snow's up-north propriety, more Vernon Dalhart than Jimmie Rodgers, but after 70 years his baritone is finally beginning to crack, providing Willie just the opening he needs to loosen the old pro up: without sacrificing a diphthong of his famous enunciation, Snow sounds completely relaxed. The tossed-off serendipity of so many Nelson records translates here into a casually engaging, deftly eclectic bunch of classics and obscurities, Willie's best album since he and Webb Pierce cut In the Jailhouse Now on a long coffee break in 1982. A

Willie Nelson: 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-

Merle Haggard: His Best [MCA, 1985]
Though occasional jingoisms like last year's Amber Waves of Grain encourage citified ignoramuses to believe he can't see beyond Muskogee, over the years his musical sophistication has surpassed even Willie Nelson's. His Strangers are a stripped-down version of Bob Wills's Playboys, his soft timbre and lazy swing marks of a singer who'll never get old, and unlike Nelson he keeps writing. This compilation is overdue--he deserted the label in '81--and not all it should be. It draws too heavily on the all too conceptual 1980 Back to the Barrooms. Its two best songs may steer you away from the minor pleasures of the all-encompassingly unconceptual The Way I Am. And it's recommended to ignoramuses nevertheless. B+

Merle Haggard: Songwriter [MCA, 1985]
The best cuts here would make His Best better. But the real reason Haggard has never chalked up the great compilations a great country artist has in him is the reason MCA is perfectly justified in repackaging duff stuff like "Red Bandana" and "From Graceland to the Promised Land." On the country charts, those were hits--that's the way the country audience can be with great country artists. Best cut: the dangerously self-referential "Footlights," which was never released as a single. B

Merle Haggard: A Friend in California [Epic, 1985]
Just when I decide he's gonna lay back forever he ambles into this. No Nippophobia, minimal love pap, a touch of Mexico, and lots of swing--except for one Freddy Powers pledge it keeps going till the obligatory sentimentality of the last two cuts. But though Merle's writing is rolling the prize is Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." I vote for a tribute follow-up. B+

Merle Haggard: Chill Factor [Epic, 1987]
Supposedly a good one, and since it features an illustrated inner sleeve and six songs on one side that must be the intent. But by peaking with "Thirty Again," all it proves is that his great theme is age rather than love, which of course dominates. Further proof includes the overtaxed title metaphor and a Hank Cochran copyright so bitter and direct it makes you think his women get sick of him for the simple reason that's he full of shit. B-

Merle Haggard: 5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989]
It wouldn't be strictly accurate to claim Haggard has pissed his talent away, but the temptation to say so anyhow beckons. His laid-back vocal signature is the lazy man's friend. His originals suggest that he has no reject pile--just entunes any old piece of verse for the annual session. And again and again his famous ecumenicism camouflages lame genre excursions--on this album, the Bellamy-reggae "Sea of Heartbreak." A slight improvement over 1988's feckless Out Among the Stars, due mostly to a formulaic title tune Hag didn't write. But if he thinks he isn't getting away with shit, he needs a shrink. C+

Willie Nelson: 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

Merle Haggard: Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990]
"His Capitol years resulted in 38 Top Ten smashes, many more than can be adequately covered in just this one volume of his hits." But at least this one includes the studio version of "Okie from Muskogee," its first appearance on any Hag album. Although newcomers should note that the man doesn't understand country's essential theme, monogamy, he does know work, prison, family, hard times, my country right or center--which doesn't stop him from getting mawkish about them. And gutless he's not. Six of the seven '74-'76 selections went number one country, while the other barely creased the aforementioned top 10--the one that speaks kindly of Dr. King. A-

Merle Haggard: More of the Best [Rhino, 1990]
The remaining 18 hits, I presume, including the definitive sinner's lament "Mama Tried." Capitol has dibs on the classics, including flag-wavers rock and rollers think they can live without, so Rhino's is short on working-man songs. But it also avoids unnecessarily educational jingoist jingles. Instead we get an asshole's view of marriage, as instructive as it is irritating. He screws in the afternoon, he takes his wife to Florida for a weekend of woo he's sure will patch things up, he settles for a substitute: "I don't have to wonder who she's had/No, it's not love, but it's not bad." You wonder exactly which working men these songs are for--makes you realize how many high-rolling automobile dealers he plays to. But self-pity has rarely possessed a more observant spokesperson. And "Rainbow Stew" says bye with an antiutopian whimsy lefties can relate to. A-

Willie Nelson: 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

Willie Nelson: 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") ***

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

Willie Nelson: 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") *

Willie Nelson: 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-

Willie Nelson: 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-

Ray Price: Super Hits [Columbia, 1997]
Honky tonk Iglesias ("Crazy Arms," "City Lights"). *

Willie Nelson: 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") **

Willie Nelson: 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

Merle Haggard: If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000]
For decades aesthetes have crowed about the hard-traveling Haggard's all-American musicality without mentioning that he's a cranky bastard who never decides till the moment at hand whether this gig or session is worthy of his high standards. After a long, dispiriting string of releases that gradually devolved from hit-or-miss to cynical, he comes out of nowhere on a punk label to cut one of the very best albums of his very uneven recording career. Although I doubt there's a "Mama Tried" or "Today I Started Loving You Again" here, I'm positive there's no "Valentine" or "Kids Get Lonesome Too," both of which turned my stomach at a 1996 show, and I like or love most of the new songs-including the metanostalgic "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the Western swing condom commercial "Bareback," and several about how much he loves his fifth wife. Plus sui generis singing that pauses for consecutive Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash tributes, and the sense of time that permeates his equally sui generis Bakersfield swing. What is his deepest belief? That time is to be savored, not possessed. A-

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

Willie Nelson and the Offenders: Me and the Drummer [Luck, 2000]
chestnuts roasted in an open studio, Pamper demos-style ("A Moment Isn't Very Long," "Home Motel") ***

Willie Nelson: 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-

Merle Haggard: Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001]
who wrote his country soul was Lefty, not Hank--as if we didn't know ("Always Late [With Your Kisses]," "If You've Got the Money [I've Got the Time]") **

Willie Nelson: The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud

Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars & Guitars [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud

Merle Haggard: Like Never Before [Hag, 2003]
Rebel, patriot, musician, legend, populist, sentimentalist, small businessman ("That's the News," "Lonesome Day"). **

Merle Haggard: Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004]
"Goin' Away Party" Choice Cuts

Merle Haggard: The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
In which hackdom ages like a fine muscatel. Back when Hag was still flexing his muscles commercially and culturally, the sentimentality of his Billy Sherrill period was rank. Now it's just gorgeously phrased. Sit back and enjoy it. No harm done. [Recyclables]

Merle Haggard: Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005]
Leave Iraq and stay with your love ("Where's All the Freedom," "It Always Will Be"). ***

Willie Nelson: 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"). ***

Willie Nelson: 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"). **

George Jones and Merle Haggard: Kickin' Out the Footlights . . . Again! [Bandit, 2006]
Hag keeps getting Haggier, but that thing in George's voice that was grainy like cornbread is turning to mush ("Things Have Gone to Pieces," "Footlights"). *

Willie Nelson: 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"). *

Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007]
There's only so much three prolific old coots can do with a double-CD of country standards, and they do most of it. Intimate with the literature, they pick winners you've never heard, and they're putting out, always a consideration with the prolific. Yet though the broad-beamed Price obviously needs two of the deftest singers left on the planet, it's his ruined echo chamber of a voice that injects a defining solemnity into the two religious songs, and everything else derives from that. Not much kidding around here--they're feeling their varying ages. But they ain't dead yet. A-

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

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With the Blues [Blue Note, 2008]
Louis Armstrong was Jimmie Rodgers' sideman, Wynton is Willie's collaborator, and somewhere in there the songs slip away ("Ain't Nobody's Business," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It"). **

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

Willie Nelson: 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+

Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009]
Every once in a while Nelson nails a fluke--kiddie album, Hank Snow stopover, sop to his road band. It's the big concepts that fall slightly flat--we're lucky American Classic is as lively as it is. This one falls in between. Three decades ago the late great Jerry Wexler, who signed Nelson to historically R&B Atlantic in 1973 and got Phases and Stages as a reward, came up with the grand scheme of pairing the subliminally jazzy Nelson with the world's greatest Western swing revival band. Only by now Asleep at the Wheel, though in need as always of distinctive vocals and material, has been on the road as long as Bob Wills himself. Enter Wexler's song list and one of the greatest singers alive. Western swing is so rowdy and lighthearted that its chestnuts lack the serious sophistication of great American songbook fare. But they sure are spry, and Nelson is so delighted to be singing them that the band's expertise lights up. Fact is, this compares favorably to Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions box. Fact is, Wills never had a singer in Willie's class either. A

Willie Nelson: 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"). ***

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

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

Merle Haggard: I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010]
Although Haggard recorded many more good albums in the '00s than in the '90s, his songwriting hasn't been this sharp since 2000's If I Could Only Fly. Not that every song flies, and not that he creaks so noticeably on the December-December "We're Falling in Love Again" just to make sure he conveys how "making love 'neath the stars" actually feels at 73. But his good-old-days laments taste sweet where once they curdled. You'd almost think he's grateful to be alive, which may just be why Johnny Cash's ghost gets to croak "I watched it all completely fall apart" on the lead track. B+

Merle Haggard: Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011]
Now 74 and short half a lung, he's not making the best music of his life, just the best albums. The playing keeps getting savvier, he hasn't lost as much voice as God intended, his homegrown anarchism is feistier than ever, and with help from his fifth wife he's still writing keepers. Not even the anti-Nashville "Too Much Boogie Woogie" feels like filler. Try a title track that crests with "Well the water came in, the water went out/Saw the Hall of Fame floatin' about," or the equally insouciant "Laugh It Off," or the love songs for seniors "Down on the Houseboat" (they've got money) and "Under the Bridge" (they don't), or a "What I Hate" where he blames the resurgent Civil War on the Rebels. Or if all that sounds too darn modern, start with the three oldies: "Cocaine Blues" on his lonesome, "Jackson" with his fifth wife, and "Working Man Blues" with Shotgun Willie and his own 17-year-old son. Man's learned how to live, and he has no intention of stopping. A-

Willie Nelson: 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") **

Willie Nelson: 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+

Willie Nelson: 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") *

Willie Nelson: 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") ***

Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie: December Day [Legacy, 2014]
After the jaunty "Alexander's Ragtime Band," I was disappointed to note the tune density diminishing markedly here. Luckily, on my third and I thought final run-through, I noticed Willie emitting the bandless but far from unmusical or amelodic words "I don't know where I am today/I don't know where I was yesterday/This song has so many notes to play/I just hope that I hit them today." Thus begins the Senile Dementia Suite, which proceeds through Nelson's 2014 "Amnesia" and 1972 "Who'll Buy My Memories," pauses to dig up Al Jolson's "Anniversary Song," and then tops itself off with the inescapably tuneful 2014 "Laws of Nature": "I get my water from the rain/If it don't rain I'll die/Stormy weather saves my life/Sometimes I laugh and wonder why." There are seven songs after that, mostly remakes of self-written chestnuts he's no doubt remade before. Hell, there's another "Is the Better Part Over" on his 2013 album, although you can see how the concept fits better here, as does what is just barely or maybe not a different version of Django Reinhardt's signature "Nuages," which you'll understand when you learn that this is Willie's guitar album way more than it's Bobbie's piano album, which it also is, and yes, the rest of his band pitches in subtly when needed. My mother-in-law played Willie's Stardust on repeat in her last years. I won't be like that--I have more music in my kit. But as a senescence album this definitely tops L. Cohen's. A

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015]
They do enjoy themselves, but although you'd think Willie wrote the buoyant one about the world going to pot, instead he wrote the lugubrious one about dreams going to die ("It's All Going to Pot," "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," "Live This Long") ***

Willie Nelson: 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") **

Willie Nelson: 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") *

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

Willie Nelson: 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

Willie Nelson: 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") *

Willie Nelson: 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

Willie Nelson: 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