Willie Nelson – ‘The Willie Nelson Family’ review: a tender passing of the torch

The country music legend keeps it in the family on his third new album release in 16 months

Those plaits just won’t quit. At a jaunty 88 years old, the irrepressible country music king that is Willie Nelson is back at it. His latest release is a family affair, bringing to the party his sons Lukas and Micah, daughters Paula and Amy and even his elder sister Bobbie – who in January will turn 91 – on piano, as well as his long-time collaborator, the old-school session harmonica player Mickey Raphael.

Nelson’s third album release since July 2020 – whoever said smoking weed makes you unproductive? – ‘The Willie Nelson Family’ has a laser focus. Honing in on classic gospel sounds, it balances Nelson’s own spiritual standards, such as ‘Kneel at the Feet of Jesus’, ‘Too Sick To Pray’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’, with some vital 20th century additions to genre: from Hank Williams’ ‘I Saw The Light’ to George Harrison‘s ‘All Things Must Pass’ and Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Why Me’.

Throwing back to one of Nelson’s earliest songs, the 12-track collection hinges around a stripped-back version of his 1957 composition ‘Family Bible’. Not just important to Nelson because it tells the story of his grandmother reading to him from the good book after dinner as a kid, but because it was one of the first songs he ever sold. It was this track that secured him enough money to move to Nashville and become a professional songwriter. Proof of divine intervention? Well, the signs are all there…

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Last recorded by Nelson 50 years ago on his ‘Yesterday’s Wine’ album, this new version is less polished than the glossy and pedal-steel guitar-layered 1971 original, but is instead warm and woozy, Nelson’s voice trembling sweetly alongside those of his gathered kids. If he meant it back in ‘71 he’s doubling down now, recalling his 1930s youth with a tangible fondness and warmth. Rather than a god-fearing prayer, this is much more a celebration of memory and togetherness than it is an act of deference to a higher being.

Lyrically it might be religion that links these songs, but it’s family which is truly important. Lukas takes the lead on ‘All Things Must Pass’ and ‘Keep It On The Sunnyside’, while father and son share the mic on ‘I Saw the Light’, ‘I Thought About You, Lord’ and closer ‘Why Me’. It’s a tender passing of the torch.

Details

Willie Nelson - 'The Willie Nelson Family'

Release date: November 19

Record label: Legacy Recordings

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