Willie Nelson – ‘Ride Me Back Home’ review

The country legend's 69th album - yes, really – finds him in absolute sweetheart mode, but unafraid to get a little bit political.

Willie Nelson’s story is one of country music’s most genuinely delightful. While Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and other big names from the OG yeehaw scene lived lives filled with tragedy and addiction, the perma-chilled Willie has spent the past 86 years with a beatific smile on his face. And that’s not just because he’s been pleasantly stoned on homegrown ganja since the early 1970s.

Starting out in the ’50s as a clean-cut songwriter with a suit, dickie bow and sensible haircut, Nelson made a name for himself after penning the extremely massive hit ‘Crazy’ for Patsy Cline, but retired in 1972 after his solo work failed to make an impact. You can’t keep a good cowboy down, though, and Nelson fell in with bearded burly bad boys Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings and picked up his guitar once more, recasting himself as a bandana-wearing, spliff-smoking outlaw.

As prolific as he is iconic, ‘Ride Me Back Home’ is Willie’s 69th (nice) album and sees him in absolute sweetheart mode. The title track certainly has an overarching sense of the spiritual, but it’s also a straight up tribute to his love of horses, especially the 60-odd he personally rescued from slaughterhouses and gave a home to on his Texan ranch.

Nelson’s left-leaning politics are impossible to ignore here, deeply embedded in his emotive cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Immigrant Eyes’. Originally written about the notorious immigration inspection station on New York’s Ellis Island, it’s hard not to see its inclusion here as pointed commentary about Donald Trump’s brutal enforcement of ICE policy (“They were standing in line just like cattle/Poked and sorted and shoved/Some were one desk away from freedom/Some were torn from someone they love”). Nelson has said too that the album’s extremely sassy cover of Mac Davis’ ‘It’s Hard To Be Humble’ is directly about the US president.

In the grand country tradition, cover versions make up half of ‘Ride Me Back Home’, but the new Nelson songs are just as chilled as his languid piano-driven take on Guy Clark’s ‘My Favourite Picture Of You’. Even his ‘I’m getting on a bit and might not be around much longer’ song, ‘Come On Time’, is a relaxed, jaunty look down the barrel of humanity. A delight, right?