One of the reasons Willie Nelson's recordings have had such a singular sound over the years is his loyalty to the core of musicians who've given his music a truly distinct personality. Of course, one of the reasons he's been so loyal to his pianist Bobbie Nelson is she happens to be his big sister, but whether it's blood or simply a common musical outlook, the gentle, intuitive interplay Willie and Bobbie share when they play together has long been one of the consistent pleasures of Willie's body of work. Music seems to come as naturally to Willie and Bobbie as drawing breath, and the two often jam on old favorites as their tour bus rolls to the next gig; Bobbie proposed the idea of cutting an album of tunes they love the way they play them on the bus, and 2014's December Day is the result.
Given that the thing most people know about Nelson beyond his music is his fondness for smoking illicit substances, it’s cute that he should have decided to call his series of archive releases Willie’s Stash. Volume One finds him sharing the spotlight with his sister, the pair having been taught by their grandparents to play several instruments when growing up in Abbot, Texas. Those early lessons are likely the reasoning behind the inclusion of two Irving Berlin numbers in this collection of 18 previously unheard recordings, the best of which is What’ll I Do, where Willie’s clear, plaintive voice floats across Bobbie’s delicate piano playing.
In his advancing years, the Texan troubadour, 81, is speeding up rather than slowing down, this being his fifth album in two-and-a-half years. Accompanied by keyboardist sister Bobbie (a founding member of Nelson’s Family band), it’s a ramble through his vast back catalogue (Walkin’, Sad Songs and Waltzes etc), adding favourites such as Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band – a set inspired by tourbus jam sessions. Indulgent perhaps, but Nelson’s worn, almost conversational vocals remain arresting.
Willie Nelson, the Patron Saint of “Screw it, I’ll do it my own way, then,” is more prolific in his 80s than just about any other musician half his age (Ryan Adams, being the possible only exception). December Days, marks his second release this year and seventh since 2010. And much like the weather in New England, if you don’t like, just stick around.
Street-level mythology is always a winning strategy for Ghostface Killah, both in and beyond the Wu-Tang Clan. “36 Seasons” (Salvation/Tommy Boy), due out on Tuesday — one week after “A Better Tomorrow” (Warner Bros.), the latest Wu-Tang solidarity project — continues his recent custom of spinning a thin concept into an engrossing narrative. The album’s liner notes include a comic written by Matthew Rosenberg that sets the scene: a returning superhero, a romantic betrayal, a sticky web of treachery, vengeance and violence.
In his liner notes for this vault cull from Austin's most iconic musician, longtime Willie Nelson harp cat Mickey Raphael observes that much travel time aboard the Honeysuckle Rose involves the boss and his sister jamming. "Why not record our favorite songs like we play them for ourselves?" wondered pianist Bobbie. Family Band members pop in here and there, mainly Raphael and his idiosyncratic honk.
If you’ve wondered what Willie Nelson might sound like in an old-school jazz club, then here you go: Pour a martini, and mull how far this album is from his “Outlaw Willie” image. The first release in a new archival series, “December Day” teams Nelson with his sister and bandmate, pianist Bobbie Nelson, for a ballad-heavy set featuring new versions of Nelson staples and a trip through the Great American Songbook. Bobbie tends to stay in the background and isn’t helped by the mix; she’s most animated on standards like Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and Al Jolson’s “The Anniversary Song.