They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Willie Nelson, 82 years old today, has always been an awkward cuss. Still relentlessly on the road and putting out record after record, somehow it would seem a cop-out to “let others do the work for a while,” as is the norm for these pieces (and besides, been there done that), so this is more a celebration of the myriad and varied covers he has performed over the decades. The germ for this idea came as the staff pow-wow took place around our best country covers of non-country songs Q&A, with Mr. Nelson featuring twice.
His career in music has lasted, so far, a staggering 59 years, his first recording being 1956’s “Lumberjack.” Since then, he has passed through many incarnations, from clean cut C&W performer, consummate Nashville standards songwriter, self-imposed banishment and his counter-intuitively hippie redneck years (copyright me), banding up with and as like-minded (the) Outlaws, before settling into iconic status as a national treasure, lauded by presidents and paupers alike. Somehow his skirmishes with the I.R.S. and his enduring support for marijuana has but strengthened his appeal, even within the staunchly conservative country demographic. And, of course, all of us longhairs just love him. Don’t we?
Now it would be foolish to itemize and iterate the career of a man who has made 68 and counting studio albums, 10 live ones and 27 collaborations. It just ain’t gonna happen, and, anyway, we all know the mythology, so what good would the truth do? All I know is that the older he’s gotten, the cooler he’s gotten. And if it were ever wondered whether pigtail braids would suit a pensioner, well, we know now. (Actually, I was quite upset when he cut his hair a couple of years ago, thinking the Samsonesque treatment would sap all his worth, but even a pageboy bob has seemed to keep him going.) And all, so they say, with the same old trusty guitar, Trigger.
Some folk think he only started covers relatively recently, with 1993’s Across the Borderline, but he had been doing it for decades before that. He’s made some very odd choices, especially when in cahoots with bro’ Waylon Jennings (their version of “Whiter Shade of Pale,” being an all-time nadir, will get no air-space here), but some of his unlikeliest have been some of his best. So hang on to your hats, and here we go:
Willie Nelson – Don’t Give Up (Peter Gabriel cover)
Perhaps too obvious a starter, but this version of “Don’t Give Up” is how I got hooked on Willie, 22 years ago. This version of the classic Peter Gabriel song surpasses even the original, no little part through Sinead O’Connor playing the Kate Bush role. It is effortless, or seems to be, transcending the jump into an undeniably country idiom. Listen out for eternal Nelson sideman, his nephew Mickey Raphael, on harmonica. You will probably think he is playing accordion.
Willie Nelson – Georgia on my Mind (Ray Charles cover)
Slower and way more plaintive than Ray, Willie’s cover of “Georgia on My Mind” sounds as if he really means it, even as a Texas boy. Classy Raphael harp again counterpoints his sweet tenor, with an élan drawn together by the blues of the organ and piano.
Willie Nelson – I Hear You Knockin’ (Fats Domino cover)
Slyly drawling his way through “I Hear You Knockin’,” suddenly it’s a whole less of a big deal than any other interpreter has made it. Rather than a shouted warning, it’s a casual statement of fact. And all the better for it.
Willie Nelson – Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones cover)
It’s true, this isn’t Willie’s best outing, but I include “Dead Flowers” primarily because I can’t help but feel it was he Mick must have had in mind as he wrung what he could out of it. And if it wasn’t, it should have been. Mind you, it is Keef (along with Hank Williams III and Ryan Adams) helping him out here, perhaps all even having had a teensy weensy tincture beforehand.
Willie Nelson – Let’s Face the Music and Dance (Fred Astaire cover)
Perhaps the most recent of this minor selection, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” was the title track of Willie’s 2013 release. On it, he imbues the Irving Berlin number with a regret borne of experience, his vocal as strong as he gets, his acoustic guitar just so very, very right. Nothing else left to say.
Willie Nelson – Dark as a Dungeon (Merle Travis cover)
Is this the first fully country song I have raised? With all his collaborations (Snoop Dogg, Toots Hibbert, Wynton Marsalis and Dr John (and B.B. King), to name but four or five), you could easily forget his original genre. Unless, like me, you just catalogue it all as classic American music. Or music.
The Kills – Crazy (Willie Nelson cover)
Have I time for one more? Go on, then, let’s actually do what I’m supposed to, and see what can be done with his own stuff. Made ginormous originally by Patsy Cline, this stripped-back version of Nelson’s “Crazy” by the business end of the Kills hits the spot with a well-due respect.
And he does card tricks, too.