Few figures in music have ever had a life as illustrious and rich as Texas’ favourite son, the one and only Willie Nelson. Born during the great depression, he and his sister Bobbie were raised by their grandparents before Willie went on to be one of Nashville’s best and brightest throughout the ‘60s. Somewhat disenchanted with the regimented nature of the Nashville hit-factory ethic, in 1972 he decamped to the desert oasis of Austin Texas and has called it home ever since. Willie is almost single-handedly responsible for the bringing together of two wildly disparate groups – the hippies and the rednecks – and he once said so succinctly in his most famous tune “the life [he] love[s] is making music with [his] friends”. Teaming up with Bobbie at the ripe old age of 81, his latest collection December Day: Willie’s Stash Vol. 1, is a perfect example of the sense of community he has always been able to inspire.
Recorded as a series of jam sessions while on tour, December Day is a collection of archived original compositions and unlikely covers from jazz greats ranging from Irving Berlin to gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt and Al Jolson. Opening with a beautifully carefree take on Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band, from the very beginning it’s the perfect album for a man of Willie’s ilk to make. The overwhelming sense of kinship and nostalgia is what makes December Day so special and the pairing of his iconic laid-back twang and Bobbie’s impressive piano skills mesh so naturally in a way that only siblings could do. Permanently Lonely and What’ll I Do both showcase his perennial flair for country music’s tradition of melancholy and Summer of Roses/December Day tenderly captures a truly unique musical intimacy shared between brother and sister.
The instrumental Nuages takes Django Reinhardt’s original from the cafes of Paris to the New Mexico border before one of the album’s highlights – a wonderfully unguarded take on Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa – shows the Nelsons at their most raw and immediate. The faint mariachi influence on I Don’t Know Where I Am Today is a testament to Willie’s ever-underrated guitar playing, as is Amnesia. Whether or not the titles of these two songs (along with the album’s subtitle of Willie’s Stash Vol. 1) are in any way related to his lifelong love and advocacy of cannabis remains to be confirmed but between friends, it’s probably a pretty safe bet.
Who’ll Buy The Memories is exactly the kind of peaceful, life-spanning song you’d hope an octogenarian like Nelson would write and it flows seamlessly into a reworking of the 19th century Romanian waltz Waves of the Danube, most commonly referred to (as it is here) as Al Jolson’s The Anniversary Song. It has the perfect amount of mournfulness to it and again encapsulates Nelson’s wide-eyed worldliness immaculately. Willie’s longtime harmonica player Mickey Raphael shines on Laws of Nature and the wonderfully stoned country waltz of Walkin’ is truly Willie at the top of his game.
Irving Berlin’s wedding gift to his wife, Always is given a stark and impactful piano treatment courtesy of Bobbie and I Let My Mind Wander has faint echoes of a New Orleans jazz sound not usually synonymous with someone like Willie, but somehow it completely works. The profundity of a question like Is The Better Part Over? is all the more powerful when considering his age, but doubles as a metaphor for both any given relationship and a long life lived well. The soul-searching/reminiscent vibe that dominates the majority of December Day comes to something of a head on My Own Peculiar Way and the closing pair of tracks – Sad Songs and Waltzes (pretty much the modus operandi of the album) and Oú-Es Tu, Mon Amour/I Never Cared For You (a collaboration with the late French composer Émile Stern) draw the first of hopefully many volumes of Willie’s Stash to a lulling, contemplative close.
With such an incredible list of accolades to his name, Willie Nelson appears to show no signs of going gently into the good night and at 81, he’s more spritely and unencumbered than most artists half his age. Bobbie’s contributions on piano are also not only a perfect musical fit for December Day, but they bring an intangible intimacy to the entire affair that is truly heartwarming. Bring on Vol. 2 Willie, let the world properly appreciate you while you’re still around!