It’s difficult to comprehend just how gargantuan Willie Nelson‘s discography truly is. When he released God’s Problem Child this past April, it marked his 72nd studio album of his long and illustrious career. Nelson has arguably had the largest impact on country music since he began some 60 years ago.
His voice and delivery are as iconic as his memorable character sketches of outlaws, sinners and born-again redeemers. With Waylon Jennings as a counter-balance, the pair led a revolution in country music with their brand of Outlaw country. It sparked a wave of other singer-songwriters who began to ditch the paint-by-numbers game and started to seek out their own voices within.
As great a songwriter and storyteller Nelson has been, he’s always had an overwhelming amount of respect for his contemporaries and songs in general. His modesty and humility haven’t just made him into a great songwriter, but also into a great performer. His covers and takes on standards within the American Songbook as well as small songs by unknown and minor songwriters are as championed as any within Nelson’s catalog.
So far when we’ve looked at gems within an artist’s career, we’ve been examining large stretches of their catalog. With Nelson though, it feels like that wouldn’t do justice. It’d perhaps feel thin and stretched too far. The deep dive of Nelson’s discography is an arduous task that demands multiple efforts.
Here, we’ll take a long look at one of Nelson’s most glossed over era — his last decade. Since 2008’s Moment of Forever, Nelson has gone all over the map in sound and style. There’s jazzy standards, outlaw confessionals, star-studded duets, worn thin ballads and deep reflections from a man who’s literally seen it all.
Here are 10 hidden gems from Willie Nelson over the past 10 years.
Despite having a limited vocal range, distinct country twang and iconic casual delivery, Nelson has consistently been one of music’s greatest chameleons. Now, that’s in part because he’s such a force that makes others adapt. But on Two Men with the Blues, a jazz standard album recorded with championed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Nelson feels right at home. Specifically on “Bright Lights Big City,” Nelson, Marsalis and harmonica player Mickey Raphael blend into a well-oiled machine.
So much of Nelson’s later career has been defined by either making star-studded collaborations or intimate, down-home music with family. On Let’s Face the Music and Dance, Nelson is just accompanied by those long-time band members. “Vous Et Moi” and “Nuages,” two Django Reinhardt covers, aren’t exactly what you’d expect Nelson to release. While Nelson doesn’t sing a single note, his fingerprints are all over both easy-going instrumentals. He shares the spotlight with his piano playing sister Bobbie and Raphael while gentle brushes and a laidback bass line lay a foundation for everyone to stretch their legs.
No one has ever accused Nelson of being in a hurry. But on Remember Me, Vol. 1′s “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” Nelson delivers some of his strongest vocals in his career. Nelson, who was 78 at the time of recording, sounds decades younger. He throws heat on the old Tex Williams song and never sounds out of breath or bored. There’s a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek novelty on the number, but it’s part of the fun. You can almost hear him wink.
On Country Music, Nelson’s 64th studio album, roots producer T-Bone Burnett and Nelson took a bare-bones approach to the instrumentation. It’s filled with old-time fiddle, mellow banjo and pleasant mandolin. On the old Merle Travis tune “Dark As A Dungeon,” Nelson settles in as the weathered narrating coal miner. At times, he sounds as if he’s about to crack on the high notes, but it works and adds a dose of grim reality.
2015’s Django & Jimmie, Nelson and Merle Haggard‘s sixth and final duet record, the pair sound at ease. “Unfair Weather Friend” sounds like you’d expect — two grizzled and seasoned country stars near the ends of their careers singing about one another’s friendship and dedication. All too often, you hear just one side of an homage or ode. Typically, it’s too late. There’s regret. But here, Haggard and Nelson right on time.
God’s Problem Child is Nelson’s best album in ages. At 84, like one would expect, Nelson is chalk full of wisdom, grace and perspective. “It Gets Easier” is very much a culmination of Nelson’s thoughts at 84. Many of his contemporaries have passed on, but here he remains. He makes no qualms about being in the twilight of his career. With so many of his later albums being filled with standards and covers, much of God’s Problem Child shows Nelson still has something to say.
While much of 2012’s Heroes has Nelson going off in multiple directions, the strongest is when he’s reserved and unhurried. Many of those are on songs penned by his son, Lukas, with none being better than the duet “No Place to Fly.” And while Lukas wrote the song, it sounds like a vintage Willie number. It’s focused and candid. Lines like “Well, the road ain’t getting shorter. And I think the weed is getting stronger” are honest, sincere and delivered in a way only Willie can.
It’s difficult to come off as wry and dry as Billy Joe Shaver, but on “Hard To Be An Outlaw,” Nelson does just that. The harmonica of Raphael howls on the Spaghetti Western-tinged outlaw rambler. Nelson hasn’t necessarily done a full-blown Outlaw country tune in years, but he proves it’s like riding a bike. Nelson sounds reinvigorated and ready to raise hell.
December Day: Willie’s Stash, Volume 1 seems to be Nelson’s answer to Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Here, the focus is on Willie and Bobbie. Much like Let’s Face the Music and Dance, it feels as though Nelson and company are pulling back the curtain and letting us get a peek at them playing in their living rooms. “Laws of Nature” finds Nelson sound relaxed. Bobbie’s piano is the canvas on which he’s able to reflect on what seems like Sunday afternoon daydreaming.
For much of the last decade, Nelson’s best work has come with producer Buddy Cannon at his side. Cannon has as sharp an ear as any in the business and often finds the right backing pieces to fit around Nelson. The opening lines of “Front porch sitting in an old rocking chair. The sun is hot in the Texas sky” paint vivid images right off the bat. There’s a warm balance in Nelson’s voice. He delivers the nostalgic memories with a heartfelt touch that’s careful and precise.