My grandmother, who passed a little more than a year ago, loved Willie Nelson as deeply as she did consistently. I’m certain she bought The IRS Tapes the year I was born, she may have even bought two. Though he’s released two tribute albums since her death, his new album, God’s Problem Child is his first full LP of originals since her passing. I recall her enjoying Nelson’s ballads, so I would like to think she would have enjoyed his new album.
Nelson sings a lot about death, both fake and real, and about getting older, though you’d hardly know it. Unlike such contemporaries as Bob Dylan, Nelson’s voice is still as crisp as it ever was. There might be little more wobble in his nasal delivery of long notes, but, put simply, Willie’s still got it. And he knows he has it, even if his body betrays his confidence. As Nelson himself sings, “You think that you’re still a young bull rider / Until you look in the mirror and see an old timer.”
Nelson’s story as an American icon is long and weaves in a great deal of artistic friendships, legal crusades (and the requisite troubles), and, finally, a reduction to simple iconography. Much like Elvis’s white suits, the Beatles hair, Lennon’s glasses, or Prince and the color purple, Nelson has his attached iconography, so attached it threatens, with my generation, to overshadow his very real greatness. Nelson is known for two things, now: his braids and his joints. This isn’t anyone’s fault, and Nelson himself embraces it. When he came out against the Defense of Marriage act and in support of gay rights, he modified the LGBT equality symbol into images of his signature braids, then two joints, of course. Also, it’s hard to not singularly associate someone with marijuana when he sings “roll me up and smoke me when I die,” on a song with the only other figure as closely associated with Mary Jane as Nelson: Snoop Dogg. What God’s Problem Child proves once again, though perhaps not to younger fans of country music, is that Nelson’s activism is intrinsically tied to himself and his music, but Nelson is so varied, and so prolific, that you can’t pigeonhole him with “stoner music.” (Then again, you can’t with most any of the so-called quintessential stoner acts, like Bob Marley and the Wailers, Black Sabbath, or again, Snoop Dogg.)
There’s a lot of words to make a simple point many (hopefully) already know. Nelson is a pot ambassador, yes, but he’s also a legend, and God’s Problem Child has him working at top form.
From opener “Little House on the Hill,” Nelson makes it clear that he isn’t breaking the form here, nor is he so interested in molding it with something else like he did with pop on 2012’s Heroes, or 2008’s jazz collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues (in my mind, Nelson’s best modern work). Here, Nelson is making country music, the kind he surely started to reflect on after the death of his longtime friend and collaborator Merle Haggard. Nelson’s tribute to Haggard is a song written by Gary Nicholson, and the album’s lead single “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” It comes last on the album though, long after Nelson has already mingled with approaching death himself on “Old Timer” and “Still Not Dead.” On the latter, Nelson comments at first on the proliferation of celebrity death hoaxes. “I woke up still not dead today / The Internet said I had passed away / If I died I wasn’t dead to stay.” By the end of the song though, Nelson seems more to have something to prove than to say: “They say my pace would kill a normal man / But I’ve ever been accused of being normal anyway.” He’s less concerned that someone claimed he was dead, though I’m sure that’s an awful feeling for himself and those close to him. Instead, he’s more hurt that someone thinks he would leave this world, when he still has music to make. “Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play.” When Nelson sings that Haggard won’t ever be gone, he means his memory, his music; about himself, Nelson means it literally. I wouldn’t be surprised if, while in his solar powered house in Maui rolling his signature Willie’s Reserve marijuana brand strumming a new song on his beloved decades-old guitar Trigger, Nelson believes he might just live forever.
If he should pass, however, Nelson takes time to make some things right. His first target is basically required at this point. Throughout the election cycle, Nelson voiced alternating support for both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. One person he was decidedly less enamored with was Donald Trump, and on “Delete and Fast Forward” Nelson forgoes the kumbaya for a little relaxed cynicism, “Delete and fast-forward, my friend / The elections are over and nobody wins / But don’t worry too much, you’ll go crazy again / Delete and fast forward, my friend.” In an interview with Rolling Stone, Nelson was asked if he fears a conservative crackdown on marijuana use:
“Who cares?” he says gruffly about possible changes to the law. “I didn’t have any problem finding [marijuana] when it was illegal, and now that it’s legal, it’s still no problem. Making it illegal again won’t stop people from smoking. They should have learned that back in prohibition days.”
On “God’s Problem Child,” featuring some of the last vocals from Leon Russell before his passing last year, Nelson tries to make right with the Lord in the album’s most blues-tinged song, but not one without that sly Willie smile. “Heaven must just love / God’s problem child.” It’s an apt descriptor; Nelson helped to invent outlaw country, and that title has defined much of his life. Johnny Cash was the recognized outlaw of country music, but he did it with a dour expression most times. He wore black. Nelson, at 83 (!) is the other side of the outlaw coin. (Cash’s most famous modern cover was of a Nine Inch Nails song; Nelson’s was a Coldplay hit.) He breaks the rules with a smile, but here he too wears a little black. Nelson is as mournful as he’s ever been. Like Bowie and Prince, Nelson is an oddity, and he knows this. “They say my pace would kill a normal man / But I’ve never been accused of being normal anyway.” We’ve had enough death recently. Willie believes he’s gonna live forever; let’s hope he does.
God’s Problem Child comes out this Friday, April 28th, but you can stream it now at NPR.