Simon Marcus Gower
Willie Nelson can prove to be too much of an acquired taste for some listeners. A friend of mine, who openly and happily calls herself a country music fan, has never been able to appreciate him, complaining of his “nasal, whining voice” and claiming that she herself sings just as well in the shower. She says he tries to be “too pop” and so dilutes his genre.
She’s not going to enjoy his new album, “Heroes.” Nelson is at it again, drawing songs from diverse sources and collaborating with some unexpected guests.
Nelson has been on the planet for the better part of eight decades, and for six of those, he has been a recording artist. Quantity doesn’t always speak to quality, but Nelson must be more than a shower singer to have racked up more than 60 studio albums and sales estimated to top 75 million copies. With a track record like that and a similarly impressive touring history, it’s little wonder that on this album, Nelson sounds relaxed.
He also seems comfortable with the musical company he keeps, including collaborating artists that span several generations. There are old friends like Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Ray Price, newer friends like Sheryl Crow, Nelson’s two sons, and amazingly enough, rapper Snoop Dogg.
“Heroes” sounds like a group of friends getting together to sing some old country classics, some nearly as old as Nelson himself. But the group covers newer ground now. It was quite a surprise to hear Nelson covering Coldplay’s “The Scientist.”
The presence of rapper Snoop Dogg on a country album will raise a few eyebrows, but his appearance on “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” where he sings with Nelson and Kristofferson, will more than likely appease fans.
Either way, that track is biggest risk found on “Heroes.” For the most part, Nelson plays it safe.
On the opening track Nelson sings one of his own songs, “A Horse Called Music,” with fellow country music outlaw Haggard. The combination of their voices — Haggard’s deep and gravelly tones and Nelson’s familiar nasal trembling — works well. There does seem to be more trembling in Nelson’s voice, perhaps the years are taking their toll. Perhaps, more cynically, the guest artists are there to help make up for his weakening vocal ability.
But let us not be too cynical when it comes to Nelson’s voice. Sure, it is not the most powerful of instruments (it never has been), but his phrasing and effortless delivery are a pleasure to listen to, as are the steel guitars and harmonicas. These elements all come together to create a pleasingly mellow sound, which is undoubtedly easy-listening, but no worse for that.
It is an album of slow songs, perhaps not a surprise for a country music album. A couple of tracks might loosely fall into a more dynamic swing tempo, but there is nothing here that is going to disturb the neighbors.
Much of the album features Nelson’s son Lukas, who wrote three tracks and performs on a number of others. His voice is similar to his father’s and there’s a feel of passing the baton from one generation to the next.
Nelson’s voice brings a wit and wisdom that is the product of years of singing and recording. However, at 79, it has to be recognized that he cannot go on forever. Maybe the lyric from “A Horse Called Music” sums it up best: “Now all that’s left is a time-old worn cowboy, with nothing more than the sweet by and by.”