Liner Notes: The truth? Willie Nelson’s latest is an icon’s pleasant tribute to a legend
Stars and Stripes March 31, 2023
“Pleasant” is the word that comes to mind as Willie Nelson takes on the music of Harlan Howard in Nelson’s latest nod to the past geniuses that came before him. Howard, one of the most prolific country music songwriters of his time, might best be known musically for his work with Buck Owens, but his true legend comes in the form of his beloved genre’s most lasting cliché: Legend has it, Howard coined the term “Three chords and the truth” when it comes to describing the essence of country music.
Aptly, that essence is all over “I Don’t Know A Thing About Love,” which doubles as Nelson’s 73rd studio album. Clocking in at a refreshingly quick 32:11, these 10 songs aren’t as much re-imagined as they are re-invigorated. Nelson, in his signature laid-back croon, sounds not a day older than his 89 years and 11 months, and the performances receive an added layer of shine for it. If this isn’t the sound of an icon paying homage to a legend, it’s hard to tell what would be.
The staples are all here. “Streets Of Baltimore,” perhaps best known for the Graham Parsons take that popped up on HBO’s “The Wire,” is as straight as it should be, Nelson toeing the line between apathy and sadness in a way only he can. It’s not flashy, but it doesn’t have to be; the tale of a lover falling more in love with Charm City than she is with her man is so heavy, there’s no reason to complicate things with imaginative time signatures or musical prowess. Likewise, the bluesy “Busted” is a fantastically humid trip to the roots of a music that earns its keep more for its wisdom than its wordplay.
“I’ve Got a Tiger By The Tail,” one of Howard’s best collaborations with Owens (shortened here to “Tiger By the Tail”), kicks things off in tone-setting fashion as Nelson’s band quickly establishes itself as more than just a group of backing players, holding things perfectly bound together. Meanwhile, Nelson provides an air of pop-reggae to the title track in a manner that fully announces who’s guiding this trip down memory lane. And then there’s “Life Turned Her That Way,” perhaps the set’s best performance if only because it spotlights precisely why everyone’s here in the first place: Three chords and the truth.
“She's been walked on, and stepped on so many times, and I hate to admit it, but the last footprint's mine,” Nelson confesses in the wrenching ballad. “She was crying when I met her, she cries harder today, so don't blame her, life turned her that way.”
Between Nelson’s voice and Howard’s words, the truth has rarely sounded more complete. Even if neither man knows a thing about love, they sure know something about how to never tell a lie.