Willie Nelson/That’s Life/Sony/Legacy
Four out of Five Stars
It ought to be clear now, if it hadn’t become obvious already, that Willie Nelson’s a musical chameleon, unbounded by any initial identification with country. Even at the age of 87, his musical ambition appears as resilient as ever, evidence of an unflappable desire to transcend any and all musical boundaries, be it Outlaw Americana, folk, rock, roots, reggae or any other style that falls in-between. That said, his love for the great American songbook found him laying a path that others would eventually follow— Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart, among the many. Yet even while his widely heralded album Stardust made those intentions clear upon its release, some 43 years ago this April, a consistent series of covers littered his recorded repertoire since very early on.
More recently, in 2018, Willie focused his homage on Frank Sinatra with the album My Way. The title was certainly as apt for Willie as it was for Sinatra, given an independent streak from which he’s never wavered. Likewise, Nelson’s new homage, That’s Life, bears a title that also sums his sentiments up equally succinctly. With a cover that evokes the images of the classic Sinatra albums from his Capitol Records catalogue, throughout the bulk of the 1950s, it revisits any number of songs associated with Old Blue Eyes’ fabled legacy.
Most will be familiar to anyone who has a love of the vintage pop ballads, which originated with cinema soundtracks and big band arrangements, and indeed, the title track, “I Won’t Dance” (a duet with the equally able Diana Krall), “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Luck Be a Lady, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Lonesome Road,” and “Learnin’ the Blues,” each form an indelible part of the American musical lexicon. Willie provides each with a rendition that stays true to the iconic originals, and while there’s a certain sense of deja vu underlining it all, he remains undeterred by any hint that he’s merely mimicking the master. With sweeping orchestral accompaniment intact, he captures the feel and finesse of the original renditions and succeeds in making them his own.
That’s especially evident with Willie’s read of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” the appropriately placed closing track and one of the album’s crown jewels. Given his senior status, he finds a certain sanctity in the song, enabling him to convey it with both credibility and conviction. That’s life indeed, and Willie Nelson gives us all a great lesson for the learning.