One for the ladies

One for the ladies
Country music’s grand old man, Willie Nelson, is back yet again with a new album, To all the girls. His third within a period of 16 months, a commendable task considering the fact that he turned 80 last month.

The Country music Hall of Famer partners with an impressive roster of celebrated female singers, including Loretta Lynn, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Norah Jones and Alison Krauss, to revisit a wide array of country, pop and gospel classics, including several of his own treasured chestnuts. Here, he boldly takes the old adage “behind every great man is a great woman” to lofty musical heights with one of best collections of duets in a really long time.

One common thing about all established musicians is that they know who they are and what they are capable of. All good musicians know their limitations and that’s what earns them the respect and adulation of their fans. The really good ones however manage to find a fine balance between staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding repetitive. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. Willie Nelson seems to have mastered this art better than anyone else.

Since his career started back in the 1950s, Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music and put out albums of everything from jazz to pop songs. He is loved by everybody, from the farmers whose plight he raises through his songs, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and no matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.

The most amazing aspect of Nelson’s music has been his ability to make almost all his songs sound emotionally honest. There’s something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice, which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. On To all the girls, he seems to have passed on this ability to all the singers that he has collaborated with. Every song, irrespective of the genre or lyrics, sounds so genuine that it makes listening to the record a very enriching experience.

Of course, some performances are better than others and there are a few in particular that stand out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on Grandma’s hands is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing.

The wily Texan isn’t afraid to match his distinctive nasal baritone with some of modern music’s most recognised voices. The contrast between his gravelly drawl and Carrie Underwood’s crystalline coo makes their new version of his Grammy-winning hit, Always on my mind, another gem in the record. Nelson also teams up with Miranda Lambert to croon Waylon Jennings,’ She was no good for me, mellows out with Paula Nelson on a twangy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s, Have you ever seen the rain, and deftly waltzes with Rosanne Cash through an emotional rendering of Kris Kristofferson’s, Please don’t tell me how the story ends.

Nelson’s guitar playing remains as sweet and distinctive as ever and at times even eclipses his vocal prowess. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace and will surely make fans listen to it over and over again.

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