Available for pre-order now at Amazon: Lost Highway
Keeping up with Willie Nelson albums has always been a chore. Up until about ’93, though, Willie was “only” churning out an album or two a year, besides truck-stop mix-tapes, and you pretty much knew which of those you were supposed to own (Phases and Stages is my BFF) and which were for completists only (hello there, Island In the Sea). But Across the Borderline, the excellent Don Was-produced mostly-covers project, launched the Willie Renaissance, a full-scale rediscovery/re-appreciation bandwagon that has lasted to this day, with every producer, artist, and songwriter alive wanting a piece of those good Willie vibes. And Willie has never been one to turn people away. As a result, there has been, for the last 15 years, a new record with every change of season—big-budget blowouts, acoustic affairs, genre exercises, collaborations—plus a couple dozen of those duet/tribute specials. Willie with Keith Richards! Willie with Steven Tyler! Willie with Ghostface Killah! Hey, is that Charo!? Even as I write this review, for his second record of 2009, Blue Note is shrinkwrapping copies of American Classic, due August 25, and Image Records is set to release a live album from the Last of the Breed tour, with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, later this year.
Willie’s latest release , out August 11th, is Lost Highway (not to be confused with the hit Bon Jovi album), which attempts to make sense of the 2000s by offering a compilation of tunes from Willie’s albums on that namesake label with a 17-track collection spanning nine albums and throwing in three previously-unreleased songs. With studio output at this pace, quality control is an issue, and while most of the Lost Highway albums are hit-and-miss, each contains some real keepers, so a compilation like this makes sense, especially for casual fans. Whether Lost Highway picked the right tunes for this mix is, of course, subject for debate.
The collection starts with two songs from 2002’s The Great Divide, a star-studded semi-disaster that had too much of everything—too much goopy, string-laden production, with Rob Thomas and others trying to shoehorn Willie into songs designed for the Adult Contemporary charts. Here, we get Thomas’s “Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me),” a real mess, and the not-terrible Lee Ann Womack duet, “Mendocino County Line.” Both were singles, cracking the country charts, so no guesswork is required for their inclusion here, but the excessive embroidery on these tracks makes for a jarring transition to the untreated, acoustic “Back to Earth” that comes next.
Songbird, the Ryan Adams-produced album from 2006, sounds great in comparison, with Adams’ backing band, the Cardinals, playing live in the studio and Adams dreaming up cool covers for Willie to sing. Lots of contenders here, but I would’ve gone with the title track, the Christine McVie classic from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (always been a sucker for that one). Either way, “Back to Earth,” a Willie original, is relatively forgettable and a strange choice, and it’s too bad only one song from this very solid album made the cut.
Next is “The Harder They Come” from the forever-in-the-making reggae album, 2005’s Countryman, Willie’s most disappointing record in years, mostly because he’d been hyping it in his shows for so long with super-groovy versions of “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo.” It sounded like a perfect match of hemp-y music produced by Don Was, but when it came out, it was mostly just a bunch of really old Willie originals from the Atlantic years, like “One in a Row,” backed by lackluster reggae arrangements that never quite fit. The exceptions are fairly cool, and the one that is sadly left out here is Johnny Cash’s “I’m a Worried Man” with Toots Hibbert, easily the most-fun song on Countryman.
Last year’s Moment of Forever is worth owning if not entirely successful. It’s another attempt at the big time, this one produced by Kenny Chesney, who knows a thing or two about making hit records, and Moment of Forever did crack the country Top Ten. The album is all over the place, including the hyped Dave Matthews cover, “Gravedigger” (not here, strangely), and songs by Guy Clark, Randy Newman, and others. This collection contains Willie’s own “Over You Again,” a surprising selection, but not a bad one—it sounds more like Willie than anything else on Moment, complete with one of those familiar, snarly guitar solos.
You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker is Willie’s best record from this period, if only because Willie sounds the most inspired and comfortable here, exclusively singing country music with breezy, jazzy arrangements played by an ace band. This one will remain timeless long after the novelty of the heavily-produced records from this period has worn off. Selected here is the gorgeous “You Don’t Know Me” and a swing-y “Bubbles in My Beer,” which feels unnecessary since you can’t really improve on the one from Shotgun Willie, but it is a tasty version.
We also get a version of Leon Payne’s “Lost Highway,” in case you forget which label this is on, from Last of the Breed, the 22-track set with Haggard and Price. This one has Willie and Price trading verses, with Willie in easy back-phrasing mode. It would have been nice to include a song that features Hag here, especially since we also get “I’m Still Not Over You,” another duet with Price from their 2003 collab Run That By Me One More Time, a sequel to their 1980 classic San Antonio Rose. This is the best version of this heartbroken Willie original ever, with both legends singing beautifully over a mournful steel guitar.
“Overtime” from 2004’s It Always Will Be is a nice pick. That chilled-out country album is one of Willie’s best of the decade, despite some clunkers like the silly “Big Booty” and a badly out-of-place rock version of “Midnight Rider.” “Overtime” is a Lucinda Williams original, and the two of them sound great enough singing together to make you root for a whole album from these two. (Psst, Lucinda: All you have to do is ask!)
Lost Highway also contains live takes of two of Willie’s best-known songs, “Crazy,” with Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” with Shania Twain, both from the tribute show Willie Nelson & Friends: Live and Kickin’. These tracks give this collection some star power, but to no meaningful effect; they are by-the-numbers versions of songs that Willie sings in his sleep, and the record would have been better served with additional tracks from the studio records.
The album is rounded out by some odds (and I mean odds) and ends, including #1 smash “Beer for My Horses,” the goofy Toby Keith duet, making Lost Highway the only Willie record on which you can find his last huge hit, a song popular enough to make its way into Willie’s nightly setlists. Another live staple lately is “Superman,” written while Willie was under doctor’s orders to take it easy a couple years back (“Too many pain pills and too much pot,” it begins), and a studio take is included here. “Both Sides of Goodbye” is a previously-unreleased ballad produced by the legendary Chips Moman, who gives the song a ’70s-style countrypolitan feel. Also here is “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” the most talked-about Willie song in years. It’s actually a decades-old gay-cowboy song that Willie decided to record after Brokeback Mountain became a hit, and it’s a hoot. Less welcome here is “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” a moronic answer to the previous song, told from the perspective of a homophobic paranoid with the refrain, “That shit ain’t right.” I’d like to believe Willie is playing a character here, except that someone calls him by name at one point. It’s kind of a cool-sounding tune from the Moment of Forever sessions, but it’s easily the dumbest Willie track ever put to tape.
That misstep aside, Lost Highway is a useful document of Willie’s latest work, the vast majority of which was recorded after the legend turned 70. These songs feel like more than a victory lap–it’s music from an artist who works quickly but is also continually open to pushing himself in new directions while occasionally easing back into familiar styles. If you already own all of these records, then you’re the biggest Willie fan in your county, and you can make your own playlist. But if you stopped buying new Willie albums a few years ago, then Lost Highway deserves a spot next to your copy of Teatro.