Remember Me, Vol. 1 by Willie Nelson
Because Willie Nelson’s star rose only after he’d departed Nashville for his native Texas in the early 1970s, some may forget that his first major successes came as a Music City songwriter. As an artist, however, Willie did insist on doing music on his own terms. This, in part, is why he’ll forever be viewed as a renegade, though he now appears to be on amicable terms with Nashville. He’s cut four albums there in the past five years, three of which have revisited songs from country’s golden era. On the most recent of those efforts, Remember Me, Vol. 1, Willie puts his more idiosyncratic tendencies in check, delivering straightforward takes on 14 tunes (all country-charting Top 10s save one) that span roughly four decades—the 1940s through the ’80s—and offer an overview of old-school country’s versatility, evolution and lasting power.
Longtime fans will note that several of these are songs he’s done before, a couple of them fairly recently, and most listeners will quickly discern that these versions, on which Willie is backed by a crack Nashville team (plus mainstay harmonica whiz Mickey Raphael) are more neatly combed than their predecessors. Those who favor Willie at his most freewheeling may find this collection a tad tame, perhaps even redundant. Still, its simple charms are numerous, with Willie in strong and unusually disciplined voice. The nimble musicians underscore him with taste and, when called for, gleeful and virtuosic abandon, and all parties involved take care to honor the original spirit of the songs they tackle here. A notable exception is a lightly swinging, elegantly framed spin on “Release Me” that rids the 1960s standard of the saccharine aftertaste it’s been known to leave.
Willie’s varied song choices form a loose narrative that, purposely or not, sketches his 78 years. The effect is almost like hearing Willie’s life pass before your ears: vintage country songs representing his youth and formative musical period, hat-tips to his Lone Star status on knife-sharp western swing numbers, the ever-present odes to broken relationships, restless themes of rambling and songs associated with his equally legendary compadres Kristofferson, Cash and Haggard. The most resonating moments touch upon the aging singer’s mortality, first jubilantly on “This Old House” (Ain’t gonna need this house no longer / I’m gettin’ ready to meet the saints) and more soberly on “A Satisfied Mind,” an epitaph-worthy statement about leaving this world with a sense of contentment.
No need to pull out the hankies, though, as there’s at least a second volume still to come. If that weren’t the case, the well-rounded first installment of Remember Me would nonetheless serve as a modest but fitting memorial to a world-class artist, as well as a testament to Willie’s enduring musical ties to Nashville, which remain deep in the heart of the Texas sound he singlehandedly branded.