Willie Nelson, That's Life (Legacy, 2021)
“While Nashville saw my phrasing as offbeat, [Jerry Wexler] compared me to Sinatra, who was, in fact, the singer who taught me that you can play with the beat. You can adjust your phrasing any way that suits your style. You can bring the song to you rather than strain to make it sound ‘correct.’ The idea is to make it sound natural, conversational, completely personal. Later in life when I met Sinatra, first thing I said was that he was my favorite singer. His reply knocked me for a loop. He said I was his favorite singer.” —Willie Nelson, Me and Sister Bobbie
That’s Life is Willie Nelson's second album in three years to cover songs closely associated with Frank Sinatra. It makes for great listening in its own right, but it's even more enjoyable given the Nelson-Sinatra mutual admiration society and certain parallels between their lives.
Both took to musical performance early in life. Nelson’s first paid gig was at the age of 11 and Sinatra began performing in his teens. Both began their careers by following established routes to success in the music industry and then risked significant changes to follow their own path. Notably, Nelson left Nashville, the epicenter of mainstream country music, to make his own music in his own state of Texas. Similarly, Sinatra left Capitol, where he made some of the most iconic music of a generation, to make his own music on his own label, Reprise. Both of their lives include an impulse to share their musical gifts with the rest of us that does not diminish with time. This album was released shortly before Nelson’s 88th birthday. Sinatra's last performance was given at the age of 79. And both became titans of American music, with accolades and millions of albums sold, while remaining true to themselves.
Nelson and Sinatra are kindred spirits, and that’s something they knew simply by listening to each other's music. There's something beautifully human about that and there's a closeness there that colors the album. But Nelson is neither a Sinatra revivalist nor an imitator. On That's Life, while he nods respectfully to the 'Chairman of the Board,' from the lamppost on the cover to the string section in the studio, he sings his way.
They're difficult songs to sing. I don’t mean ‘difficult’ technically, though that's true, too. I mean it both emotionally and culturally. Emotionally, because the earnestness and simplicity with which some of the songs’ sentiments are delivered have a real chance of ringing hollow in a post-postmodern world. Culturally, because the ‘Chairman of the Board’ casts a long shadow over the pop vocal landscape. It's nearly impossible to sing "I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet..." and not have the echo of Sinatra’s voice in the ears of the listener. Nelson takes these difficulties in stride.
Maybe this is because lines like “You’re only burnin' a torch you can’t lose, but you’re on the right track for learnin' the blues” come more naturally to someone who heard pre-war blues music develop in real time, who was raised with a g-dropping English accent, and who was around when "carrying a torch" for someone was a phrase that still had social currency. Maybe it's also because the emotions in these standards also require a certain lack of cynicism. Bob Dylan commented on this idea in 2017 from a position with unique insight. His new music for the years 2015–17 consisted exclusively of Sinatra-related recordings, Sinatra also appreciated Dylan, and Dylan's life includes parallels to all of those listed above for Nelson and Sinatra. When asked on his website (bobdylan.com) if he thought the writer of 'There’s a Flaw in My Flue' was "goofing," Dylan replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a sincere romantic ballad…. There are a lot of lines like that in blues and folk music…. I don’t think it can be dismissed that easily…. I’ve seen images in my fireplace too.”
And while Nelson's ability to weave his guitar and voice around the beat is a cultural legacy of its own, with admirers ranging from Miles Davis to current alt-country artists, he names Sinatra as a key influence on his phrasing. By incorporating that influence over decades and employing it here, the music comes full circle. As Nelson's new versions of these standards float around the room, Sinatra's versions float around the mind. While not harmonious, neither are they discordant; they are as complimentary as the men singing them.
If the album has a flaw, it's that perhaps the arrangements can sound a bit too respectful at times. To borrow Nelson’s words: while his singing never does anything other than bring the songs to him—and wonderfully so—there are several moments in which the session musicians seem able to only make the songs sound 'correct.' The result is sometimes less than ideal, as if Nelson’s diamond vocal delivery is occasionally set in polished steel instead of bright platinum.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the music on the album is not as consistent as the voice. Being on par with Nelson is a tall order for any musician. It’s also been said that key ingredients for a classic Willie Nelson record include Nelson’s voice, Trigger (Nelson’s guitar), and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. My personal addition to that list is Bobbie Nelson’s piano. No matter the material, those pieces make a complete puzzle. On That's Life, Mickey Raphael's harmonica and Trigger appear only a handful of times and Bobbie Nelson is absent entirely.
The record is the latest release in a decade of Buddy Cannon-produced Willie Nelson music that now includes four tribute albums. All of it has been enjoyable and bodes well for the future. Here's to the next decade. Here's to Willie Nelson 90s. I'm looking forward to the music.
Robert Hann: firstname.lastname@example.org