What Have You Done For Us Lately, Willie Nelson?

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Credit: Maria Ives

Credit: Maria Ives

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In What Have You Done For Us Lately? we examine the recent output by legendary artists. Sure, we’re happy when they return with a new album… but really, just how happy are we? We’ll gauge their output since 2000 (or, for less prolific artists, their last five albums), take a hard look and see how their recent material has held up… and maybe help you to find a few gems that you overlooked.

It’s a bit churlish to ask what Willie Nelson has done for us lately: Dude just turned 80 and released yet another new album, Lets Face The Music And Dance, which sees him performing a bunch of standards from the likes of Irving Berlin and Django Reinhardt backed by a small combo. Furthermore, Nelson tours all the time (he takes that “On The Road Again” thing pretty seriously) and seems to release at least one album per year — sometimes more, plus singles and collaborations.

To provide the scope of his work, we’re checking out select works from his discography, stretching back to 2000. Since the turn of the millennium, Willie seems willing to give just about anything a try. Happily, much of it works.

Milk Cow Blues – 2000

Willie Nelson Milk Cow Blues

In which Willie collaborates with blues legends (B.B. King, Dr. John) and younger artists (Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Johnny Lang, Susan Tedeschi). Rolling Stone gave it 3 1/2 stars, calling it “emotionally rich, musically savory and languidly blue from end to end.” A good listen, but not a classic.

Rainbow Connection – 2001

Willie Nelson Rainbow Connection

It’s sort of a children’s album, and, yes, the title track is a cover of the Kermit The Frog classic from The Muppet Movie. That provides the album’s highlight, but another cool track is his cover of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Written by Mickey Newbury, it was originally a hit in 1968 for The First Edition, a group that featured Kenny Rogers on lead vocals. Rainbow Connection also includes vintage covers like Rex Griffin’s “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon” and Jimmie Dolan’s “Playin’ Dominoes and Shootin’ Dice.” Rolling Stone gave this one 3 1/2 stars as well, and Popmatters said “This is probably Nelson’s most casual and intimate album of recent years.”

The Great Divide – 2002

Willie Nelson The Great Divide

In which Willie’s record label – Lost Highway – made him goSupernatural. His former collaborator Carlos Santana had incredible success with that album of all-star collaborations, featuring a contribution from red-hot Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas. Willie’s album was kind of like that, minus the multi-platinum sales and multiple GRAMMYS. “Mendocino County Line,” a duet with Lee Ann Womack (written by mb20 collaborator Matt Sereltic and Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin) brought him back to country radio (briefly) – it was a Top 40 country hit. Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt also appeared on the album… as did Rob Thomas who sang on, and wrote, “Maria (Shut Up And Kiss Me).” The album’s best moment was possibly a cover of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s psychedelic hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which, yes, he previously recorded (with a very different arrangement) on Rainbow Connection.

Run That By Me One More Time (with Ray Price) – 2003

Willie Nelson and Ray Price Run That By Me One More Time

Nelson collaborates with honky-tonk legend Ray Price, who also happens to be his former boss (he played bass in Price’s band in the early ’60s). Fans who complain about Willie getting away from his country roots should check out this album, which got very little attention but deserved much more. Run That By Me should easily make any list, in any genre, of “Most Underrated Albums Of The 2000s.”

It Will Always Be – 2004

Willie Nelson It Will Always Be

This is one of Willie’s finest post-millenial efforts, and maybe one of his best ever. The title track was written by Willie and features no guest collaborators–something he should do more often.  That said, other songs on this album do include some great collaborations: his daughter Laura wrote the lovely ballad “Be That As It May” and lends her voice to it as well. Norah Jones sings on “Dreams Come True,” and Lucinda Williams appears on an update of her own “Overtime.” The highlight of the album, though, may be Willie’s cover of Tom Waits’ “Picture In A Frame.” Other standout tracks include “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leavin’)” and a cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider” featuring Toby Keith.

Countryman – 2005

Willie Nelson Countryman

Countryman is Willie’s “we hope you like our new direction” album. Although he’s taken plenty of stylistic left turns throughout his career, this reggae album was his most drastic. Why would he make a reggae album? The pot leaf on the cover points out one thing he has in common with many reggae artists. Equally telling was the fact that the album was started in 1995 but took a decade to finish. A funny idea on paper, perhaps, but the finished product really doesn’t work. That said, there are some cool moments, including a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Worried Man” (with reggae legend Toots Hibbert), a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s classic “The Harder They Come,” and Willie’s own “Do You Mind Too Much If I Don’t Understand.”

The Dukes Of Hazzard – 2005 
Which was Willie’s craziest move of 2005: releasing a reggae album, or collaborating with Jessica Simpson? Willie costarred with the blonde bombshell in the Dukes Of Hazzard film and cameo’ed on her cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” that she recorded for the film. Less weird was Willie’s cover of the TV show’s theme, “Good Ol’ Boys,” originally written and recorded by Willie’s pal Waylon Jennings.

“He Was A Friend Of Mine” / “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond Of Each Other” – 2005-’06
Willie showed his support of the LGBT community twice during the mid-’00s.  In 2005, he covered Bob Dylan’s “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” changing the meaning quite a bit, for the classic film Brokeback Mountain. The next year, he followed with a cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond Of Each Other,” originally done by Ned Sublette in 1981.

“Superman” – 2005
Willie makes fun of his fondness for mind-altering substances (“Too many pain pills, too much pot, trying to be something that I’m not”) and remembers that he isn’t as tough as he used to be (“Well I blew my throat and I blew my tour, I wound up sippin’ on soup d’jour”). This was released as an iTunes exclusive.

You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker – 2006

Willie Nelson You Don't Know Me The Songs Of Cindy Walker

This was Willie’s tribute to Cindy Walker, a legendary singer/songwriter from the 1940s and ’50s who wrote many classics for western swing legend Bob Wills. The title track–cowritten by Eddy Arnold (who cut a version in 1955) and later included on Ray Charles‘ groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music–is one of this album’s many highlights. Like Run That By Me One More Time, it’s another album that will appeal to Willie’s purist fans, and one that, unfortunately, didn’t get the attention it deserved. Sadly, Walker (who, like Willie, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) died less than two weeks after the album’s release.

Songbird – 2006

Willie Nelson Songbird

Also known as “The Ryan Adams Album”… even by Willie. Lost Highway put Ryan (and his then-band, The Cardinals) in the studio with Willie, possibly hoping to tap into Adams’ younger, hipper fanbase. Not a fan favorite, Songbird still had some great moments, including the title track–a cover of the Christine McVie-penned Fleetwood Mac classic–the Grateful Dead’s “Stella Blue,” Gram Parson’s “$1000 Wedding,” and even Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“Senor (Tales Of Yankee Power)” – 2007
A somewhat more successful attempt to endear Willie to indie rockers than Songbird, this Bob Dylan cover from the soundtrack to I’m Not There (itself a Dylan tribute) saw Nelson backed by Arizona rockers Calexico. And it begged the question: Why doesn’t he pair with them for a full album?

Last Of The Breed (with Merle Haggard and Ray Price) – 2007

Willie Nelson Merle Haggard Ray Price Last Of The Breed

This collaborative release with two country legends (Ray Price and Merle Haggard) ranks as another of Willie’s occasional roots-oriented “resets.” They never get the attention that his more “stunty” albums do, which is a shame. This double album showed that the three veterans were still at the top of their respective games, although there are few new songs.

Moment Of Forever – 2008

Willie Nelson Moment Of Forever

Produced by country superstar Kenny ChesneyMoment of Foreverwas another attempt to re-endear Nelson to mainstream country audiences. It didn’t really work. There were interesting covers, however, such as Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger,” Randy Newman’s “Louisiana,” Big & Rich’s “The Bob Song,” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”

Two Men With The Blues (with Wynton Marsalis) – 2008

Willie Nelson Wynton Marsalis Two Men With The Blues

One of Willie’s more interesting experiments, Nelson and longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael joined legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his backing combo for a few concerts at New York’s Jazz At Lincoln Center. They took on standards like “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Nightlife” and “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It.”  The genre-crossing effort resonated with jazz fans, topping Billboard‘s jazz chart for four weeks, and hitting number 20 on the Billboard 200 album charts.

Willie And The Wheel (With Asleep At The Wheel) – 2009

Willie Nelson and Asleep At The Wheel Willie And The Wheel

If you’re looking for a Willie album that’s fun from start to finish, look no further. Willie gets back to his Texas swing roots and parties like it’s 1929 with Asleep At The Wheel. If you missed this album in ’09, we recommend catching up on this one.

American Classic - 2009

Willie Nelson American Classic

In the wake of Rod Stewart’s success with the Great American Songbook, it was tempting for any artist to dive in and try for platinum sales. Of course, Willie had jumped in that pool before, most notably on his classic 1978 album Stardust. This one didn’t work out quite as well; Rolling Stone said that Nelson “can be kind of lazy” and that “he only occasionally sounds like he’s trying.”

Country Music - 2010

Willie Nelson Country Music

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Willie gets the O Brother Where Art Thou treatment, playing traditional country songs surrounded by a mandolins, fiddles and acoustic guitars. One of Willie’s most enjoyable albums of the past 15 years.

Remember Me, Volume 1 - 2011

Willie Nelson Remember Me, Vol. 1

He might have called this one Country Music had he not already used the title for the previous year’s release. Here, backed by Nashville musicians, he recorded covers of some of the biggest country music hits of the past 70 years, including George Jones‘ “Why Baby Why,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” and Tex Williams’ “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” There has yet to be a Volume 2 of the series.

Heroes - 2012

Willie Nelson Heroes

Heroes is not quite a duets album, and not a covers album, although it has plenty of both. Sheryl Crow appears on a cover of Tom Waits’ “Come On Up To The House”; other covers include Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” and Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” both lovely and neither feeling like a stunt. But the album’s big winner is the one song that he’s been using in his encores, “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die,” which features Jamey JohnsonKris Kristofferson and fellow ganja enthusiast Snoop Dogg. As great as some of Willie’s recent material has been, he rarely adds any of it to his setlists. “Roll Me Up” and a version of “Beer For My Horses” (a 2003 Toby Keith single that featured Nelson and spent six weeks at No. 1 on the country charts) are among the few recent songs he’s included in his live shows of late. Willie plays “Roll Me Up,” tellingly, during the gospel segment of his show.

The Verdict
Willie just turned 80, so the fact that he’s released 17 albums in the past 13 years is stunning. A household name and a country music legend (not to mention a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame), the man has nothing to prove. And yet he still works at a furious pace, continuously exploring new avenues but always returning to the country music that made him a star.

While some of his albums are clunkers and others are just dull, he has enjoyed more than a few incredible post-millenial moments. It Will Always BeRun That By Me One More Time and Willie And The Wheelto name three, hold up to some of his best work. His concerts, though, often feature the same songs he’s been playing forever, so it would be cool if he was as open to new things when assembling his setlists as he is when in the studio.

- Brian Ives, Radio.com

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