What Have You Done For Us Lately, Willie Nelson?

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Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson (photo by Maria Ives)

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 go Supernatural. 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.

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