Album Review: Willie Nelson–God’s Problem Child

Rating: 8/10

I’m not sure at what point it becomes ridiculous for me to sit here and attempt to judge the quality of Willie Nelson’s music and expect anyone to take me seriously. obviously, Willie has proven his output will stand the test of time, and as Josh, formerly of Country Perspective, said on Twitter, he’s putting out better music at eighty-three than most artists will in their entire careers. Having said that, I don’t think it’s an album that’s going to change your opinion of Willie Nelson; if you enjoyed his music, you’ll like this record too, but if you aren’t really a fan, I wouldn’t say this album is going to be anything earth-shattering that will change your mind. Personally, I’ve always been on the side that enjoys a good amount of Nelson’s music, and this album was another pleasant, if not mind-blowing. listen.

Mortality is a theme running heavily through this record, as other outlets have pointed out. Sometimes it’s metaphorically, such as in the opener, “Little House on the Hill,” where Willie Nelson seems to be referring to heaven. Sometimes it’s humorous, like in “Still Not Dead,” where Willie makes fun of the frequent death hoaxes surrounding him and says, “I woke up still not dead again today” despite what the Internet said. Sometimes the references are more introspective, such as in the song “True love,” where Nelson states that when it’s all over, he’ll still believe true love was a friend. Regardless, the end of life definitely overshadows this record; it’s both somber and peaceful, but I think that your mileage on this album will directly be affected by your ability to deal with these references.

There are frequent mentions of old age too, quite obviously in “old Timer” and more subtly in “It Gets Easier,” as Willie expresses that it gets easier to back out on your commitments as you get older. These types of songs can make the album less relatable at times, and that’s okay–just as Maddie & Tae’s youthful songs about growing up will speak more to their generation, these songs will no doubt speak more to Willie Nelson’s generation and those reflecting on the next stage of life.

I noted this record is peaceful, and that’s the perfect word to describe it sonically. It’s somewhere between the clean production of Sam Outlaw’s latest record and Jason Eady’s, with lots of quiet, introspective moments. And much like Outlaw’s, the overall mood this album puts you in as you listen says more about it than explaining the individual tracks. The aforementioned “True Love” is one of the best to capture this mood, along with “A Woman’s Love’ and the title track, which features Tony Joe White, Leon Russell, and Jamey Johnson. (Jamey Johnson continues his incredible run of lending his voice to amazing songs, by the way, and I’m beginning to think he’ll never release new music, just continue to appear in other people’s songs like this for the rest of eternity.) Another really nice moment, and one of the few that touches neither on old age nor death, is “Lady Luck,”–think of this as the more thoughtful, intuitive version of “Ace in the Hole” or a more laidback version of “The Gambler.” This is my personal favorite but that’s probably just because it’s more relatable to me than much of the album–or it could be because I have a partiality to poker. Another standout track is the closer, his tribute to Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever be Gone.” We’ve had a lot of Merle tributes, but this one is from a friend, and so this one just means much more.

If I have anything to say against this album, it’s just similar to Sam Outlaw’s in that parts of this can run together, and no song really blew me away on its own. IN the context of the album, many of these songs are great, but as I mentioned, part of this has to do with the overall mood and frame of mind created by this record. as I say, your mileage, I believe, will depend on your take on the old age and death references, but that’s not a criticism at all, just a personal preference. I want to make that especially clear since many of the best songs here deal with the end of life, and Willie Nelson has done a great job reflecting on that and capturing his state of mind through his songwriting.

So, overall, yeah, Willie Nelson has given us another good album and is still churning out quality country music at eighty-three–well, eighty-four after last Saturday. It’s a nice, pleasant listen, and while I wouldn’t say it’s anything groundbreaking, I would say it’s certainly worth your time. Hopefully I’ll still be struggling to find words for Willie Nelson albums well into the future.

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Reflecting on: Johnny Cash–Silver

Let’s get this out in the open; my knowledge of country prior to 1990 is sketchy, and prior to 1980 it is pretty terrible. This is one of the reasons for the reflection pieces in the first place. Ever since I heard “Gold All Over the Ground,” I wanted to dig through the catalogue of Johnny Cash, and then, coincidentally, I was sent the recommendation “On the Evening Train” by my boyfriend Rob–that comes from a much later album, so I started working my way through that, and then I heard “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” also coincidentally, which led me to Silver. I’ve been expressly informed that this isn’t the “most accurate representation of Johnny Cash,” and I’m sure that’s correct because I don’t have much of an idea, but I really enjoyed this one, so I thought I’d share it with you all.

Release Date: 1979
Style: some traditional country, some blues, Apple Music mentions it being more mainstream which is probably why it might not be the most accurate representation of Cash
Who Might Like This Album: Johnny Cash fans, fans of country influenced with soul and blues, fans of story songs and imagery
Standout Tracks: “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” “Cocaine Blues,” “West Canterbury subdivision Blues,” “Muddy Waters,” “I’ll Say It’s True,” “I’m Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick on my Old Guitar”
Reflections: Well, this is the first album that I have discovered doing this, as opposed to revisiting one and greeting songs like old friends. This was a new kind of experience, like listening to a new album, but in a different way, as if I’d found something that had been lost. As I say, there is a lot of bluesy influence in these songs, and I really enjoyed that style. The imagery is great, especially in “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “West Canterbury subdivision blues,” where the narrator sings about leaving his “queen” behind in their “castle” too much, “and that was no way to leave her.” Eventually, another man came along and “plucked my grapes from the vine.” I love the metaphors in this one, and listening to songs from this era really paints a picture of how far the quality of mainstream songwriting has slipped. There are some more traditional tracks too, like the humorous “I’ll Say It’s True,” with George Jones, and the closer, “I’m Gonna Sit on the Porch and Pick on my Old Guitar.” It’s a nice mix of styles, and overall, this album was just a really enjoyable listen that I know I will keep coming back to.

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Song Review: “Cumberland Gap” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Rating: 9/10

I took some time with the second song from Isbell’s upcoming album before commenting on it here because “Hope the High Road” grew more and more forgettable as I listened to it. Brianna reviewed that, and she was quite impressed; so was I at first, but as I say, it started to get more generic. So I gave “Cumberland Gap” several listens, and I’m happy to say it’s having exactly the opposite effect, getting better each time.

“Cumberland Gap” speaks directly to the life and hardship in that region, but even if you’re not from that little stretch of a Appalachia running through Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee, you can relate to a town with little else besides “churches, bars, and grocery stores” if you come from any little town in America or across the world. It’s that universality that makes the lyrics of the song stand out and will help many understand the pain the narrator feels as he tries to avoid facing the window at the local bar so he can imagine himself in any other town. It’s remarkable how these lyrics can still speak even with this heavy production–because let me tell you, this is not country or folk or singer/songwriter, this is rock, or perhaps more accurately southern rock. This is what Jason Isbell promised ahead of The Nashville Sound, and it’s certainly present on this song. That production works here, as it adds an edge and an anger to the darkness of these lyrics.
The one criticism I have against “Cumberland Gap” is sometimes the lyrics can be lost in the recording, and I wish I could hear them more clearly. It took several listens to make out some of them, and once I could, the song got even better. overall, though, this made me look forward to the album much more than “hope the High road.” But definitely be prepared for the rock production because if these two tracks are any indication, this will not be another Something More Than Free. Take that as you will; so far, I’m on board.

Written by: Jason Isbell

Collaboration with Critically Country

So I did a collaboration piece with Alex at Critically Country discussing the month of April–topics include Angaleena Presley, Jason Eady, Sam Outlaw, Whiskey Riff, the female perspective, radio collapsing in twelve months…yeah, I think that’s it. Anyway, go check out that piece, as well as Critically Country.

The Country Music Chat Featuring Country Exclusive

Artists I Wish Would Take a Hint From Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley was one of the first artists that got me into country music. He may not be your favorite–and that’s okay–but you can’t argue with songs like “Who Needs Pictures,” “we Danced,” and certainly “Whiskey Lullaby.” He was one of the people that I heard on the radio in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that made me fall in love with this genre. He really disappointed me on his last two albums; they weren’t terrible, but they just weren’t Brad Paisley. You could tell he was trying to be something he was not. His guitar play was noticeably lacking, and he seemed to be veering toward chasing radio success. On his latest album, Love and War, he has gone back to being himself, and that’s just refreshing. There was a discussion on SCM about whether or not Brad will make it into the Hall of Fame, and all that remains to be seen, but he can’t do anything better than be himself, and that’s what he has done on his latest record. It got me thinking and talking about a lot of the artists that got me into country in the first place. A lot of them made some fine music earlier in their careers but have since started to kill their legacies by chasing short-term success and promoting mindless singles to radio. They could learn from Paisley, as well as Tim McGraw, who has also returned to form recently. Zac Brown Band could easily be talked about on either side of the conversation here, but I’ll reserve judgment until May 12th and hope I can include them in with Paisley and McGraw. Anyway, let me know if there are any artists you’d add to this list, as these are just the ones whose decline in quality over the years has personally bother me the most.

Dierks Bentley

Why, why can’t we get back the Dierks Bentley of “Up on the ridge” and “Riser?” Yep, “riser” was released in 2015; even then, he hadn’t sold out. There’s not even any point in him selling out this way–he was getting airplay anyway. Black is certainly not the most terrible album I’ve heard in recent memory, but it’s one of the most disappointing because I really thought we could count on Dierks Bentley. This is what he is capable of.

Blake Shelton

I own a Blake Shelton album called Loaded: the Best of Blake Shelton. Ironically, that album was released just prior to the beginning of his stint on The Voice, and so, essentially, it really is the best of Blake. Anyway, that record is great. But people won’t remember that; he’s done his best to eradicate all that in the past five years with the majority of his singles. I remember when I first heard “Austin,” and it blew me away. Same goes for “Don’t Make Me.” Blake does a lot for traditional country and music of substance from his chair on The Voice, and I just wish he’d take his own advice because if he did, I think he could be remembered for more than his reality show and his obnoxious tweets.

Keith Urban

Those of you that are shocked I own a Blake Shelton album, brace yourselves for this…I own no less than six–yep six–Keith Urban records…I’ll give you a moment to digest the fact that I’m not a Sturgill apologist, yet I own six Keith Urban records…now then. Keith Urban was a prime example of what good pop country is supposed to be–right up till the single “Little Bit of Everything” and his American Idol run (coincidence, Blake?). He used to write much of his material as well, and whether you enjoyed it or not, he was real. Keith Urban might be the most disappointing artist in the mainstream for me because he is just simply better than the crap he is releasing to radio–and it’s not as if he was ever especially traditional in the first place, so I don’t exactly see radio not playing him if he went back to more meaningful material. It literally boils down to laziness in his case, and that’s unfortunate.

Kenny Chesney

He is better than this too, even if you’re sick of beach music. His last record was absolutely boring and lifeless. Even Chesney sounds bored. I miss the days of “There Goes my Life” and “Old Blue chair.” Like Brad and Keith, even if Kenny isn’t your favorite, he used to at least be himself.

Eli Young Band

I remember when Eli Young Band were a cool Texas band releasing equally cool new music instead of shit like “Turn it On.” Yeah, that is basically all.

Honorable Mentions

  • Josh Turner–His last album wasn’t quite disappointing enough to piss me off on this level, it was mainly just boring, but if he releases more like this, he’ll make the list.
  • Little big town–I wish they’d get back to themselves, but I didn’t enjoy them enough when they were themselves to be as annoyed by them now. Also, The Breaker was a small step in the right direction.
  • the Band Perry–I don’t think them coming back to themselves is even possible at this point, so I don’t see the point listing them here.