Still playing, still with a twinkle in his eye, Willie Nelson at 79 sounds like a man with nothing to prove. And he’s all the better for that. Those who have missed out on a recording career that began in 1956 will get a pointer from Roll Me Up – a rollicking piece of mischief recorded with Snoop Dogg while Willie had a marijuana charge still pending in El Paso.
And if that sounds a little messy, the album is actually a return to simple virtues after a couple of outings where Johnny Mandel and then T-Bone Burnett dictated the style. Buddy Cannon’s unfussy production measures out pedal steel, accordion, and Mickey Raphael’s dependable harmonica round a pin-sharp rhythm section. There’s no stricter theme than a lucky-bag of genres and guest singers that all hang on a legend.
It’s an easy brew to enjoy, too. The range takes in the roistering, exemplary Western swing of My Window Faces the South (written in 1937) and Home in San Antone (1943) to wistful readings of Floyd Tillman’s Cold War With You and Tom Waits’ Come On Up to the House. Old compadres Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson jostle for the honours of grizzled sidekick, and Sheryl Crow is soulful on the Waits song.
There’s a degree of torch-passing as well, with three songs by Willie’s son Lukas, whose voice echoes his father’s dauntless quaver. Lukas’ Every Time He Drinks He Thinks of Her sits comfortably with the standards, likewise Cannon’s That’s All There Is to This Song and Willie’s own Hero. And if the hour ever drags, it’s on the Pearl Jam (Just Breathe) and Coldplay (The Scientist) covers; one talent Willie Nelson has never boasted is the rock-style gravitas of a Johnny Cash.
But if anyone asks how Heroes differs from the 65 Willie Nelson studio albums that preceded it, the happy answer is: not much. The expressive, intimate tenor, the matchless musical instinct and Willie’s distinctive ringing guitar lines are just as compelling, and just as delightful, as ever.