Nelson adds his own perspective to the abiding musical legacy of one of country music’s greatest songwriters.
Back in the final years of the 1950’s when the musical landscape much like the wider world was perceived as a simpler place compared to the complexities of the twenty-first century two young men set forth in search of their dreams to be songwriters. Harlan Howard arrived in Nashville a year before Willie Nelson but their paths soon crossed and a friendship and mutual admiration were formed that would last until Howard’s death in 2002 at just 74 years old. The following twenty years has seen Nelson continue to work and release albums at a rate that would put those less than half his age to shame and now as he rapidly approaches his 90th year, April 29th, he releases ‘I Don’t Know A Thing About Love’ his 73rd studio album, a tribute to his former contemporary and an opportunity to introduce Howards music to a whole new generation.
For those that aren’t aware it was Howard that first defined ‘a great country song’ as “Three chords and the truth” and though he did record six albums under his own name between 1961 and 1981, he quickly recognised the lucrative benefits of writing hits songs for more established artist such as Ray Price, Guy Mitchell and Patsy Cline resulting in the heady success of having no less than fifteen songs in the charts during 1961. Nelson also had the good fortune in having Cline record one of his songs, ‘Crazy’ but always had his heart set on becoming a recording artist in his own right and first covered one of Howard’s songs on his fourth album ‘Country Favourites – Willie Nelson style’ in 1966.
When it comes to choosing the tracks for this tribute album Nelson has been careful to cover the multiple eras of Howard’s success whilst his interpretations position them all squarely in a mid-sixties honky tonk environment. To help him achieve this sound and feel he’s drafted in producer Buddy Cannon along with a stellar cast of musicians that included Larry Paxton on bass, Bobby Terry on guitars, Lonnie Wilson on drums and Jim ‘Moose’ Brown on keyboards that collectively have contributed to create an album that is ‘Pure Country’ with Nelson sounding at his most relaxed, comfortably surrounded by familiar songs. Like old friends. So whether it be ‘Tiger By The Tail’ or ‘Excuse Me’ both co-writes and hits for Buck Owens or ‘Streets Of Baltimore’ a co-write with Tompall Glaser and a smash hit for Bobby Bare though possible better known to fans of americana through the various cover versions by Gram Parsons, the interpretations may be fresh but they never stray too far from the heart and soul of the original with the band careful never to overplay allowing Nelson to gently drift down Memory Lane.
Back in the sixties it was the staple of Nashville traditions for artists to record a whole album in honour of one songwriter, in fact Owens along with Waylon Jennings both honoured Howard in this way during that decade, however in more recent times this tradition has essentially been abandoned as artists have been less inclined to focus the spotlight in the same way, so Nelson’s decision to offer this tribute now is all the more intriguing. One could surmise that it is out of respect to a former comrade, possible repaying some old favour, or simply an opportunity to educate a younger audience but also as he approaches his 90th year it would be just as astute to recognise and accept his need to return to his roots, to where it all began as if in someway completing the circle. One can’t help but sense as Nelson sings tracks such as ‘Busted’ previously recorded by both Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, or ‘Too Many Rivers’ a hit for Brenda Lee, as well as the title track a hit for among others Conway Twitty, that he has simply closed his eyes and transported himself back to where it all began.
‘I Don’t Know A Thing About Love’ is a country album in the truest sense of the genre, one that manages to ooze respect for the tradition but with a fresh twenty-first century feel. Nelson’s singing which has always had a strong melancholy lilt is now accompanied with a distant sense of longing for times gone by, which all helps to create an album that fans should enjoy, both those familiar with Howard’s songs as well as those discovering them for the first time.
Spot on, Graeme. As usual.
Many thanks Alan, glad you enjoyed it.