With a work ethic that dwarfs musicians a third of his age, good ol’ Willie keeps pumping ’em out, praise be. When listening to him sounding impossibly youthful on I Don’t Know a Thing About Love, his tribute to famed songwriter/contemporary/buddy Harlan Howard, it is impossible to believe Nelson turns 90 at the end of next month. These songs are staples by now, avoiding any purely Nashville C&W silo, so he and (largely) his regular crew, can imbue these songs with some outlaw life, verve and, where necessary, pathos.
It is over 20 years since Harlan Howard died, aged 74, in 2002. Despite that, his songs have remained timeless, seeming to avoid being locked into any of the stylistic cliches of the last century. Striking lucky only a year or two after he began to write, he swiftly scored a couple of major country chart hits, with massive crossover success of the second of those, one you’ll know, his best known song, “Heartaches By The Number,” which Guy Mitchell took to the top of the pop charts in 1959. Unrestricting himself to Nashville, he wasn’t even averse to dabbling in R’n’B, penning “The Chokin’ Kind,” a hit for Joe Simon in 1969. Howard summed up his writing style with the legendarily pithy phrase, since adopted as the yardstick of a good country song, “three chords and the truth.”
I Don’t Know a Thing About Love bounces out the corral convincingly with “Tiger By The Tail,” all chunky guitar twangs and Nelson sounding like he’s having a hoot. Howard cowrote this song (and many others) with Buck Owens, and it gave Owens his biggest hit. It was inspired by the Esso/Exxon tagline of the day, around putting a tiger in your tank. Nelson here certainly sounds as if he has one in his. That aforementioned Joe Simon hit follows, with Nelson slowing it down, stripping out the funk, finding a classic truck stop weepie in the remains. Those of us who can never wait for the inevitable appearance of Mickey Raphael’s mournful harp on any Nelson record need wait no longer, as Raphael blows a corker on this one, ahead a typically stuttering solo from Trigger. (Trigger? Google it, in the context of Willie Nelson.)
Heartaches always a stock in trade for Howard, “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)” could almost be a rerun for the better known song, itself not included, perhaps as Nelson covered it before, if back in 1965, on Country Music Favorites, Willie Nelson Style. A pity, as that was not Nelson’s finest moment, arguably before he hit his stride. Nevertheless, this lighter song gets a good seeing-to that doesn’t disappoint. Mike Johnson’s steel is especially good. As is the piano, provided by Jim “Moose” Brown, for another tears-in-your-beer number, “Life Turned Her That Way,” another short doozy of a harmonica interlude from Raphael, bookending with more whining steel. The title track may be the weakest song in the set; it’s pleasant enough, but Nelson can do this sort of thing in his sleep, it sounding he here he was on automatic pilot.
Thankfully, that is retrieved by a sterling version of Howards’s other best-known song, “Streets Of Baltimore,” popularized to more modern audiences by Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam. Lyrically it could be the flip of “Life Turned Her That Way,” taken from the view of the embittered husband rather than those with a kindlier view. The band play it like the best Texas bar band in the world, and hey, maybe they are. “Busted” here manages to find a middle road between the best-known other versions of this song, capturing Johnny Cash’s swagger with Ray Charles’ soul, with Raphael puffing and blowing like an old bluesman. Moose’s organ is great, too.
“She Called Me Baby” captures a glossy retro feel, in waltz time, with lots of echo on the steel and the guitars. That’s lots of echo, and I feel the 50’s Western swing mood deliberate. It is certainly better than the gloopy strings when Charlie Rich covered it and had a hit. (It would have been interesting had there been an effort to look at it in the style of Candi Staton, who also had a hit with it, changing the sex of the protagonist!) “Too Many Rivers” returns to the template elsewhere, with Nelson in as fine vocal fettle as anywhere on this project, he presenting the words convincingly and believably. Trigger gets to show his chops again. Finally, and to close this engaging album comes “Beautiful Annabel Lee,” a sweet song of thwarted childhood love, steel and harp the fuel that feeds this one. A bit soppy, but since when was this sort of music not?
Nelson could possibly put anything out at this stage of his career, and have it praised by default. To be fair, I Don’t Know a Thing About Love stands up on its own legs, irrespective, as does indeed his last album. And for that matter the one before that. So, it is true you do have to have a fair bit of love for country, and it may not quite steer sufficient into Americana crossover territory for some, but that is their problem. Any lover of Nelson and any covers lover should have a field day here.
I Don’t Know a Thing About Love Track Listing:
1. Tiger By The Tail (Buck Owens cover)
2. The Chokin’ Kind (Waylon Jennings cover)
3. Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache) (Buck Owens cover)
4. Life Turned Her That Way (Little Jimmie Dickens cover)
5. I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (Conway Twitty cover)
6. Streets Of Baltimore (Bobby Bare cover)
7. Busted (Johnny Cash with the Carter Family cover)
8. She Called Me Baby (Harlan Howard cover)
9. Too Many Rivers (Claude Gray cover)
10. Beautiful Annabel Lee (Burl Ives cover)