Country Music legend returns in reflective, ruminative mood.
Ninety-seven studio albums over a sixty-five year recording career is a truly staggering body of work, and confirmation of an unimpeachable legacy. Willie Nelson has nothing left to prove and yet this new long player, released on his 89th birthday, further cements his status as a legend, not just of country music, but of popular music per se. There isn’t much the world has to offer that a man of Nelson’s vintage hasn’t seen and experienced, and on ‘A Beautiful Time’ he laments lost loves, celebrates long-standing friendships, and makes amends for past wrongs. Nelson delivers each of these songs with a ‘last man standing’ singularity, as he recalls and replays times gone by; the sense of solitude no doubt exacerbated by the Covid enforced remoteness of the recording sessions. The gently mournful tone of the album, produced by and partly co-written with long-time collaborator Buddy Cannon, sees Nelson flicking through his back pages, remembering days left behind with a sense that he is making peace with the world and with himself, laying to rest ghosts, reconciling his regrets.
Nashville A-listers such as Chris Stapleton, Rodney Crowell and Shawn Camp contribute several songs alongside the Nelson / Cannon originals, and in doing so they step into Nelson’s shoes, allowing him to give convincing interpretations of their words as if they were his own. Nelson projects himself on to his readings of the two classic covers present here; Leonard Cohen’s ‘Tower of Song’, and Lennon / McCartney’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ with some aplomb. The latter is particularly successful, Nelson delivering this most adaptable of standards with a weathered sincerity that is uniquely his.
Sonically ‘A Beautiful Time’ is as comfortable as a pair of old jeans, with a clean and sparse Country production that allows the songs room to breathe. There is no clutter, just tasteful touches from a crack team of sessioneers; the delicious washes of silvery pedal steel and warm Telecaster flourishes offer much aural delight.
Despite the downbeat mood there is fun to be had, and Nelson is dryly playful as he looks forward to meeting up with old friends Merle, Waylon and Patsy on the other side (“I don’t go to funerals, I won’t be at mine”). It’s not all backward glances either, as he wonders “are these memories of good times, or dreams of future plans?” on ‘Me and My Partner’. There is clearly still life to be lived.
Willie Nelson’s generation spanning career shows no sign of slowing down; many stories have yet to be told. ‘A Beautiful Time’ is the sound of a man reflecting on a life well lived whilst acknowledging the passing of time, staring down mortality with a bravado that only an Outlaw can muster. Willie Nelson signs off with a tender farewell, as he sings ‘I just want to leave you with a smile’. Which is the best thing you can leave anyone with.