It’s his ninth release since signing with Sony’s Legacy label in 2011, a period highlighted by his recent Grammy victory for Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin over heavy hitters like Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category.
God’s Problem Child is Nelson’s first album featuring all new songs—he co-wrote seven of them with longtime producer Buddy Cannon—since 2014’s Band of Brothers. It contemplates the past and even dares to peeak into the future. Songs like “Little House on the Hill,” written by Cannon’s 92-year-old mother, Lynell Rhodes, look backward, and “Old Timer” and “It Gets Easier” extoll the benefits of aging. T, the former insisting, “You’ve still got dreams inside your head/Some days it’s a struggle just to get out of bed,” while the latter boasts, “As we get older/It gets easier to say go away, not today.”
Appropriately for a guy who titled his 2012 memoir, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, Nelson faces the prospect of death with his own stoned humor. “Still Not Dead” pokes a hole in all those online rumors. “I woke up still not dead again today,” he deadpans. “The Internet said I had passed away.” On his dead-serious political commentary, “Delete and Fast Forward,” a not-so-veiled reflection on the 2016 presidential campaign, Nelson warbles pointedly, “The elections are over and nobody won… We had a chance to be brilliant and we blew it again.” Mickey Raphael’s jocular harp and James Mitchell’s bluesy, Dead-like guitar riffs add layers to the tune.
Regrets? Sure, Nelson’s had a few. On “A Woman’s Love,” he picks out a Latin melody on his faithful acoustic guitar, Trigger, over Jim “Moose” Brown’s plinking piano. Nelson croons about the fleeting nature of love on “Butterfly,” and can’t escape his past on the classic country lament, “Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own,” a timeless sentiment he makes sound brand-new.
The rueful “I Made a Mistake” is his mea culpa for past transgressions, on which he admits:
I thought I was Jesus
And believe me I’m not
I thought I was right
And I was wrong by a lot
I feel a little like Elvis
When he was alone
I made another mistake Lord
I thought I was wrong
Nelson’s joined by Jamey Johnson, Tony Joe White, and his old collaborator Leon Russell, who passed away in November, on the album’s title track, co-written by Johnson and White (of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia” fame). “I feel the shine following me,” Russell sings with his iconic Tulsa drawl. “Not far behind/ That’s where I wanna be.” It’s one of Russell’s last recorded moments.
The closer, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” is dedicated to another of Nelson’s compadres, Merle Haggard, who also passed away in 2016. Written by Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Gary Nicholson, it tugs at the heartstrings when Nelson sings:
A fugitive and a branded man
Mama tried to understand
Left us a lifetime of song
And he won’t ever be gone
As he emotes, Haggard’s son Ben delivers a wrenching electric guitar solo that ties a final bow on the song, and album.
Willie Nelson may be facing in the autumn of his years, but he’s certainly not going gently. God’s Problem Child offers conclusive proof that rumors of his demise, per Mark Twain, another humorous Southern story-teller with whom he has much in common, have been greatly exaggerated.
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