december 2011

Willie Nelson: the album title is more than a song


By David McGee

Willie Nelson
R&J Records (Released November 2011)

Remember Me, Vol. 1 is designed to drive some hard-boiled Willie Nelson watchers completely nuts—on the heels of 2010’s T-Bone Burnette-produced Country Music, an album of time-honored country and gospel tunes, Willie returns with an album of time-honored mainstream country hits (all Top 10 in their day, with eight being chart toppers) spanning a period of 40 years, from 1946’s “Roly Poly,” by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys (a tune Willie first recorded in 1963, on his second RCA album, Here’s Willie Nelson), to a lone entry from the ‘80s, Vern Gosdin’s 1986 steel-drenched honky tonk heartbreaker chronicling a relationship’s demise, “That Just About Does It”; nine of the 14 tunes date from the 1950s, which may say something about which country music era Willie loves most. Yet there are devoted Willie fans out there shaking their heads and lamenting anew (some of them in print) the absence of any fresh Willie tunes here (at least he wrote one new song for Country Music), and charging him with merely coasting (again). They would point out how Remember Me, Vol. 1 has none of the surprise factor of 1978’s eternally captivating Stardust or the daring of the jazzier 1985 collection, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Like Country Music and unlike, say, Red Headed Stranger, this album has no binding concept beyond being a clutch of tunes Willie is fond of. Somewhere, too, someone is claiming the falloff in Willie’s own tunesmithing can be traced to the moment when he be smoking that weed for the first time.

Willie Nelson, ‘Satisfied Mind,’ from Remember Me, Vol. 1

Well, what of it? Remember Me, Vol. 1 is a good album, not a spectacular one, and those whom Willie rarely pleases will have a case if they say he is indeed coasting far too much on this outing. You wish Possum Jones’s “Why Baby Why” (1955) had more sizzle instead of being a rather tempered midtempo dalliance, despite the energetic fiddle excursions courtesy the great Aubrey Haynie and some nice pedal steel flourishes from Sonny Garrish. You hunger for a bit more urgency in the vocal to match the energetic music propelling Hank Snow’s 1951 #1 all-timer “I’m Movin’ On,” wherein piano man John Hobbs tears it up and guitarist Brent Mason adds some stinging electric punctuations as the tune trundles on down the line. On “Today I Started Loving You Again” he’s all over the place vocally, seemingly struggling to find the right emotional pitch, a bit wobbly here, a bit strained there, never quite nailing the full melancholic panorama of the singer’s schizoid romantic dilemma, although Haynie’s crying fiddle lines and ever-reliable Mickey Raphael’s moaning harp most certainly do.

Willie Nelson, ‘Roly Poly,’ from his second RCA album, Here’s Willie Nelson, released in 1963. A new version of the Fred Rose-penned Bob Wills hit is featured on Remember Me, Vol. 1.

So there’s that. On the other hand, and pretty much cancelling out all of the abovementioned stumbles, is a pitch-perfect soulful unburdening of slow boiling passion on Ernest Tubb’s poignant “Remember Me (I’m the One Who Loves You),” with Willie’s touching vocal poignantly framed by Hobbs’s honky-tonk piano ruminations, and tender fiddle and pedal steel atmospherics courtesy Haynie and Garrish, respectively. Willie gets so far inside Porter Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind” (a curious choice, since he also cut it for Country Music) you understand that this story of a man who loses all his money but gains something greater in the unconditional love of friends and family strikes a responsive chord in him; the spare arrangement crafted by redoubtable producer James Stroud, low-key and bluesy but with a gospel underpinning to enhance the narrative’s spiritual overlay, is an affecting complement to Willie’s deeply personal reading. In the devastation of the romantic endgames playing out in the aforementioned “That Just About Does It” and in Ray Price’s bluesy lament “Release Me,” Willie is completely immersed in the despair consuming the song’s narrator as love flees, accepting the inevitable and putting the weight right on himself to boot in a couple of striking honky tonk portraits of lovers coming apart. On the cool side, the reconfiguring of Rosie Clooney’s 1950 #1 pop hit “This Old House” into a brisk country shuffle finds our man singing with a free, buoyant spirit and giving plenty of leeway to Raphael’s harmonica, Garrish’s pedal steel and Hobbs’s piano to step it up and go in this unabashed toe-tapper. Though his even-keel vocal on Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” (not the same version he recorded in 1979 on Willie Sings Kristofferson) is less riveting than Johnny Cash’s portentous rumble or even Kristofferson’s ragged, weary warbling on their respective versions (Cash’s being the big chart winner, at #1 in 1970), Willie’s nuanced take—solemn, undaunted, aching—does remind us of the degree to which Kristofferson wrote like nobody else at that time, both in his use of language at once poetic and plainspoken and in his stark portrayal of a dissolute character trying to snap back to reality after a Saturday night bender. Of course at the end a sense of renewal, even salvation, arises, however briefly, and Willie’s feeling for its possibilities is evident in the sudden emotional elevation he affects before sending it home on a plaintive note. With its music’s unyielding restraint and surging character answering Willie’s unvarnished self-recrimination, this “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” though consciously less majestic than Cash’s version, packs a punch you won’t soon forget. If he doesn’t get it up, so to speak, on each and every track to every fan’s and critic’s liking, Willie has still made the album title something more meaningful than merely the name by which we know a great country song from the days of yore. As if we would ever forget.

Willie Nelson’s Remember Me, Vol. 1 is available at

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