Willie Nelson

Legacy, 2023

REVIEW BY: Peter Piatkowski


A legend like Willie Nelson would be excused to rest on his considerable laurels. Making music for nearly 70 years, the singer-songwriter is easily one of the most revered performers in country music. But at age 90, Nelson doesn’t seem interested in being merely a legacy artist, basking in his illustrious history; instead, he’s still making interesting music that shows that even if he’s past his peak, he’s still capable of making some beautiful music.

On Bluegrass, the singer’s 74th album, Nelson embraces mountain music and bluegrass, finding kinship and ease in the genre. Though the record is an acoustic affair, it’s still lush and blooms with fiddles, guitars, mandolins, harmonicas. It’s also quite joyful. Nelson’s not interested in depicting an artist in the last chapter of his life, taking stock of his history. Instead, my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Bluegrass shows off Nelson’s spry and sprightly persona, genial and easy going.

It's a testament to Nelson’s songwriting prowess that the collection of songs on Bluegrass sound like classics, though they’re all self-penned. It’s also important to note that Nelson’s voice is largely intact and full. Though he has never been the most bombastic or powerful vocalist, he has always been able to bend and fold his tight yet expressive instrument to reflect his good-natured personality.

The record opens with the nimble “No Love Around,” which sets the tone for the rest of the album. The lyrics of “No Love Around” chronicle love lost, but the frolicsome arrangement belies the bruised lyrics. Age has nicked his voice a tiny bit, adding a bit of amber at the end of his phrases, which is audible on the song. Nelson resurrects “Bloody Mary Morning” (first recorded in 1974), which tells a hungover story of a man whose wife left and he’s trying to sort himself in the stunned aftermath. Nelson’s inimitable phrasing means he doesn’t croon so much as regale as he’s supported by the crack studio musicians who lead their star at a clipped pace.

Willie Nelson’s a prolific scribe and is responsible for some great country standards, including the big-hearted “On The Road Again” which describes a simply and thoughtful wanderlust. Revisiting a classic tune like “On The Road Again” is pretty ballsy but reimagining it as a bluegrass ditty is pretty genius. Singing the song at 90 just highlights Nelson’s seeming invincibility and indomitable spirit. He wisely chooses to maintain the song’s swinging, sociable tone instead of trying to wring poignancy or pathos the way many of his peers have done when returning to their early hits; Nelson isn’t singing the song ironically or with yearning.

There’s no indication that Bluegrass is Nelson’s last album and given the enthusiastic energy he’s displaying here, it’s easy to believe that he’s got a few more albums in him. He’s been very prolific in the last few years and it’s encouraging that late-career work like Bluegrass is incredible.

Rating: B+

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