As he enters his 80s, Willie Nelson remains both a national monument and an impossibly prolific artist, playing hundreds of shows every year and releasing albums at a pace that makes Guided By Voices look like Guns N’ Roses. Even with such undiminished output, however, Band of Brothers arrives with a great deal of expectations. It’s his first collection to feature predominantly newly penned songs in nearly 20 years. The last time he debuted so many compositions on one record, the result was 1996’s Spirit, which stands alongside the best in his long career. Which is saying a lot: As a Nashville songsmith in the 1950s and 1960s, he wrote such hits as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, Ray Price’s “Funny How Time Slips Away”, and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls”. As a solo artist in the 1970s, he practically defined the outlaw movement with albums like Shotgun Willie, Red-Headed Stranger, Stardust, and one of country’s best-selling albums, Wanted! The Outlaws, with Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter. So Band of Brothers has a lot to live up to.
Thankfully, Nelson isn’t writing from the point of view of an 80-year-old. There’s no grimness on Band of Brothers, no bleak admissions of mortality or putting-affairs-in-order solemnity that damned late-in-life albums by Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number to Nelson, who will likely be touring and toking long after we’re all dead. Even on “The Wall” and “Bring It On”, both of which reminisce about the hardships and regrets of a life spent on the bus, Nelson sounds triumphant rather than weary. “I hit the wall,” he sings, less like a beaten man and more like Joshua at Jericho: “And the wall came down.”
If he sounds like a man who just can’t wait to get on the road again, Band of Brothers suggests that he’s motivated less by wanderlust than by the camaraderie of his fellow scribes and musicians, many of whom have been with him since longer than you or I have been alive. This is nothing new for Nelson, who has been portraying the touring life as a mobile party since the early 1970s. His band on Brothers tears through these sad songs and waltzes with unfussy professionalism, nimbly navigating the wanted-man recklessness of “Wives and Girlfriends” and the spry Western Swing” of “Used to Her”. And Willie sings them like he can’t believe he gets to hear Mickey Raphael play harmonica every night.
The least satisfying songs on Band of Brothers address the music business itself and the changes Nelson has seen since earning his first credit more than half a century ago. His version of “Hard to Be an Outlaw”, a new song by first-gen outlaw Billy Joe Shavers, takes contemporary tailgate country to task for oversell its barnyard bona fides: “The record people nowadays keep spinning ‘round and ‘round/ Songs about the backroads that they never have been down,” Nelson sings, chagrined that “they go and call it country, but that ain’t the way it sounds.” But he doesn’t do bitter very well, and both “Hard to Be an Outlaw” and Shaver’s other credit, “The Git Go”, sound dark, dirgelike, and out of place among so many uptempo numbers. (Shaver includes better versions of both songs on his upcoming album, Long in the Tooth.)
Nelson has always had an easy way with a wistful melody, and even though his voice has gained new grain over the years and lost some of its range, it’s more agile and commanding here than it has been on his last few albums. Still taking massive liberties with meter, he underscores the default optimism of closer “I’ve Got a Lot of Traveling to Do” and imbues “The Songwriters” with a sly wink. That light touch compensates for the convoluted concept of “Used to Her” and almost manages to sell the lines, “You’re like the measles, you’re like the whooping cough” on the otherwise fine “I Thought I Left You”. Nelson sings about romance like it’s still a vital concern for the eightysomething, which probably has less to do with his day-to-day life and more to do with his old-school approach to country songwriting. Even if it can’t measure up to Spirit, Band of Brothers is still a showcase for what Nelson does best. These songs pare the personal down to the universal, speaking eloquently to experiences common to every listener: love, friendship, hardship, trouble.