Willie Nelson is an Untouchable, even to people who don’t always buy his records. At the seemingly ancient age of 40, he invented a musical genre (outlaw country) that firmly rejected the recent past of the Nashville Sound and invigorated country for millions of fans. A few years later, with Stardust, he boldly aligned himself with rock-era singers who embraced the American Songbook, bringing another wave of fans along with him.
Now, at 80, he’s turning to the Songbook again, with his musical family in tow, on Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as fine an example of cross-genre art perfectly fitting an artist as you’re ever going to find. It should be obvious by now, but Willie knows who he is, knows his limitations, and has made another album from the heart—one that treats its content with respect, affection, and the relaxed self-assurance of a family sitting around the piano singing out tunes for the love of it.
Willie has always cultivated the image of family, and even if the musicianship of the Nelson family sometimes resembled War of the Roses more than the other Nelsons of Ozzie and Harriet, the clan has the seamless blend of brothers and sisters singing harmony. To be fair, Willie’s records, which for decades have used his live band, have always played well when his live shows sometimes didn’t. Let’s Face the Music and Dance is an imminently listenable record whose songs are as well mixed as the band, a down-home feast of country comfort food mixed with a hint of French gypsy band effortlessly blowing through some classics. The band is never less than tasteful, and its signature sound (after Willie’s voice and gut-string guitar), the harmonica playing of longtime family member Mickey Rafael, sits comfortably in its place, sometimes playing the role often taken by squeeze box in Musette/jazz manouche treatments of standards. Willie’s guitar solos, though not likely to be mistaken for his idol Django Reinhardt’s, are similarly thoughtful and tasteful.
The album is also well paced and sequenced. It takes the first cut, a very loose reading of the Irving Berlin title tune, to reacquaint oneself with Willie’s approach to standards. After a visit with his own remade hit, “Is the Better Part Over,” Willie settles in with a terrific version of Harry Warren’s “You’ll Never Know,” and then the band relaxes with its lovely take on “Vous Et Moi,” recorded by Reinhardt in 1942 and previously recorded by Nelson for 1999’s instrumental release, Night and Day. Later, they’ll also offer up their staple version of Reinhardt’s “Nuages,” which again spotlights the band. In between, Willie’s whisky-warmed voice takes you on a sentimental journey to several cuts that adapt well to a classic-country treatment, like Ahlert and Turk’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” McHugh and Fields’s “I Can’t Give You ,” and Berlin’s “Marie (The Dawn is Breaking).” Willie’s voice, though finally showing some signs of aging beyond its well loved old-soul character, is still firmly in command of these songs, as trusty as the favorite uncle you turn to for sage advice.
When I was a young musician in Texas, I was awed by the power of Willie to create music as diverse as “Crazy” and “Whiskey River,” and to reinvent himself into the king of what was then alternative country, even though I didn’t particularly care for the sound he created for his own music, let alone pop standards when he took them on. Now Willie, and more surprisingly his band, sound like what they are, a time-tested, loyal, and wise family comfortably settled on the front porch of American music.
Performance: A; Arrangements: B+; Overall: A