Willie Nelson has always been prolific — writing songs, collaborating with anybody and everybody, often releasing multiple albums within the span of a single calendar year. But even by his typically brisk standard, the past three years represent a particularly fertile crop. Around the time of 2016’s Ray Price tribute, For the Good Times, Nelson started making loose, often very funny records that commented on an encroaching mortality with directness: albums like God’s Problem Child, Last Man Standing, and even (or especially) the Sinatra tribute My Way stand proudly alongside Nelson’s best work. His new one, Ride Me Back Home, doesn’t end the winning streak, though it does register as one of its least consequential entries. Once again working with the boon producer Buddy Cannon, Nelson’s mining the same fruitful terrain as his last several albums, slyly combining his interests in country, blues, and jazz into supple roadhouse roots music, all the while addressing his twilight years with wry humor and good-natured sentimentality.
The ingredient that’s missing this time around is focus; while Last Man Standing felt streamlined and purposeful, Ride Me Back Home starts strong but peters out with some rather inexplicable forays into soft-rock schmaltz, including agreeable, but hardly essential, karaoke versions of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and Mac Davis’s “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” the latter performed as a cheerfully goofy sing-along with Nelson’s sons. The thing about Nelson, though, is that he has a way of making even the most middling material sound heartfelt and charming, and Ride Me Back Home maintains a breezy appeal across its highs and lows. And there are plenty of highs: The shuffling, ain’t-getting-any-younger original “Come on Time,” the slinky grand piano ballad “Stay Away from Lonely Places,” and a couple of warm and wonderful Guy Clark covers. All these serve as reminders that Willie does things his way; that he’s earned the right.
Published as part of Rooted & Restless | Issue 4