tue 28/11/2023

Album: Willie Nelson - That's Life | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Willie Nelson - That's Life

Album: Willie Nelson - That's Life

Willie Nelson takes another dip into the great American songbook

The cover artwork hints at Frank Sinatra's 1955 classic "In the Wee Small Hours"

“That cat’s a blues singer,” Frank Sinatra famously said of Willie Nelson. “He can sing my stuff but I don’t know if I can sing his.” The two men sang together, on stage and on record, and Nelson, 87, is now older than Sinatra when he took his final bow – the Guv'nor last sang in public aged 79, and died at 82. The perfect phrasing which had marked him out had by then long gone, swagger and vulgarity replacing once intelligent and subtle performances.

"I learned a lot about phrasing listening to Frank," Nelson has said.

Nelson has been dipping into the great American songbook since the mid-Seventies and this is his second Sinatra album – My Way (2018) was the first – and he’s the recipient of the 2015 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Matt Rollings skilfully arranged and, with Buddy Cannon, co-produced both outings. A Nashville session man who’s played with Alison Kraus, Bruce Springsteen and Mavis Staples, he’s deep into jazz. On That’s Life he plays piano, Hammond and Wurlitzer, working with drummer Jay Bellerose, bassists Kevin Smith and David Piltch, guitarist Dean Parks, steel guitarist Paul Franklin and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, alongside a lush string section (a nod to the great Nelson Riddle) and horns. Nelson of course plays his battered Martin guitar, Trigger. Recording took place in Hollywood’s Capitol studios, where Sinatra’s is only one ghost in the air.  

Like Sinatra, Nelson is a crooner, close into the mic, his voice always to the fore and mostly effortless, the tone conversational, like the best of Sinatra. And he can swing, always slightly behind the beat. Diana Krall drops by to duet on “I Won’t Dance” – check out the charming video in which Fred and Ginger meet William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. They sound to be having such fun! On the title track, Nelson is reflective and not brash, as Sinatra ultimately was. On “Cottage for Sale” he is exquisitely wistful, light and improvisational on “Luck, Be a Lady”, and tender on “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” – slightly tremulous on the top notes but secure on the melismata. Raphael’s harmonica solo is wonderfully atmospheric.

When he sings “You Make Me Feel So Young” you can sense a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Hell, he sure don’t sound old!

Like Sinatra, Nelson is a crooner, his voice always to the fore and mostly effortless


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters