Under a starry Texas night, watching Willie Nelson and his band of “brothers, sisters, whatever,” as he refers to them in the title song of his newest album, at a venue inside a replica of a 19th-century western town — complete with saloon and dusty main street fit for a gunfight — you might be forgiven for forgetting what year it was. Funnily enough, I’m in Luck, the small town about an hour’s drive from Austin where Willie’s ranch is located. The ranch was the set of Red Headed Stranger, Nelson’s 1985 movie adapted from his 1975 concept album, about a preacher who takes revenge on the man who stole his wife. Nelson’s music mirrors this showdown, Willie preaching the gospel of country music in ways that salute both sinner and saint.
Band of Brothers is Willie Nelson’s first album of primarily new and original material since the last millennium, when he released Spirit in 1996. Not that he has ducked under his own shadow. His perennial touring, autobiographical musings and marijuana advocacy keep him forever young. Having crossed the threshold of his 80th year, he is by turns reflective and ornery, bemused and accepting, rueful and wise, distilling eight decades of wisdom earned the hard way. That the album’s music rings so true is testament to the tenacity with which Willie has clung to in his vision of how country music should be presented. Even his earliest hits — “Crazy” and “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” — depart from the genre’s conventions, with jazz-inflected chords and a conversational singing approach, matched by a resolute against-the-grain lifestyle. When Nashville grew too constricted for his tastes in the ’70s, he helped found an alt-country movement that took pride in its Outlaw status, and toughened the silken contours of the then-burgeoning “countrypolitan” movement. Along with his coconspirator Waylon Jennings (“This one’s for Waylon,” he hollered at the Texas show launching into “Good Hearted Woman”), he still waves the flag for doing it your own way, outside the barbed wire fences of Nashville — even though, truth be told, he’s more country (and more western) than any urbane Music City dweller.
“Bring it on,” he challenges in Band of Brothers‘ opening song of the same name, with the wail of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica riding shotgun. His singing is casual, conversational, relaxed — even when his words are forceful — with an occasional side order of cantankerous. He is willing to stake his claim, and stand ready to defend his homestead, and when the song pauses for its instrumental, he saddles up Trigger— his trusty banged-up Martin N-20 guitar named for Roy Rogers’s horse — and takes him for a ride. His wayward solos are constructed whimsically, full of pirouettes and twists and double-stop turns; yet they have an inner logic that reveals itself at the final riposte, a debt owed to Django Reinhardt as well as any picker you could name. He admits in “Guitar in the Corner” how much he owes to the way the instrument which, as he has it “played me” rather than the other way around.
Nelson is forthright about how he stands in relation to the Nashville establishment, even today. He turns to Billy Joe Shaver for “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” a title that’s completed with the line “…who ain’t wanted anymore.” The song gradually becomes an accusation, with Nelson singing, “They call it country, but not the way it sounds.” Of course, this isn’t a new conundrum. Modern-day Nashville has traded its boots-and-saddles for pick-up trucks and the rock ‘n’ roll it tried so desperately to keep at bay in the ’70s. Funnily enough, Willie hasn’t changed his adversarial stance. “You can’t tell me what to do,” he proclaims matter-of-factly in Band of Brothers‘ title track.
Yet despite this Alamo-like stance against country’s lowest common denominators, I mostly come to Willie for the heartfelt emotion he brings to a love song. A romantic at heart — and what a heart! — he delves into the parabolas of relationship with an eye toward the universal longing we have to be within each other. “Whenever You Come Around” turns the world upside-down with a simple smile; the meditative “I Thought I Left You” is subtly transformed by a trick ending: “It’s time you’re leaving me.” And then there’s the never-the-twain-shall-meet of “Wives and Girlfriends,” Willie’s not above a bit of flirtatious ribaldry, as the sly dog counts off his entanglements in double figures, always ready for one more.
The album’s cleverest song is “The Songwriters,” a Gordie Sampson/Bill Anderson composition that goes behind the scenes of the tunesmith’s craft, to celebrate the many selves you can inhabit when writing a song. “We get to break out of prison/ Make love to our best friend’s wife…/ We get to tell all our secrets in a code no one understands,” and on and on, itemizing the myriad ways dreams are realized and lives are lived vicariously.
Unless, of course, you’re Willie Nelson. In which case, it’s all autobiography.