With his 79th birthday behind him, Willie Nelson is pondering his mortality on Heroes. A duet with fellow septuagenarian Merle Haggard on ruminative opener “A Horse Called Music” examines memory and loss. And then follows a meditation on death, “Roll Me Up & Smoke Me When I Die,” sung with Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson and uhâ€¦Snoop Dogg?! OK, OK, so somber isn’t Willie’s way and Heroes shows he still has plenty of crackling guitar playing and cackling lyrical play left in him. “I ain’t leaving, so don’t sit around and cry,” he says on this spry boot-scooter, as he and Snoop pass the chorus back and forth between them like a joi — uhâ€¦microphone. Two songs on, Willie notes “I think the weed is getting stronger” on “No Place to Fly.”
Which isn’t to say that Willie isn’t a wee bit contemplative on his latest. But if anything, Heroes is a barbecue, not a wake, with generations of friends and family gathered around to celebrate and reminisce. Elder statesmen like Haggard, Kristofferson and Ray Price are here, as are Billie Joe Shaver and Sheryl Crow, not to mention Willie’s sons Lukas and Micah, lending hands on songwriting, harmonizing and guitar-picking. For every vintage western swing number (from the prime ’30s/’40s era) there is a contemplative cover, be it a gospel-inflected shuffle for Tom Waits’ “Come On Up to the House” or a gentle take on Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe.” Heck, there’s even a Coldplay cover, proving that this old dog has a few new tricks left in him yet.