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Willie Nelson
Spirit,  Island CD 314-524 242-2, 1996 (40:26)

A very special album by one of America’s greatest singers

Willie’s got a new record label, so Island now has its first country artist, if that’s what he is. This quiet homespun album sounds like it could have been recorded before Country separated from Western, before there was an Opry, even before Jimmie Rodgers rode a train. As with Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas’ Yonder and Gillian Welch’s Revival, there is a sense of pushing the roots back another generation or two. Okay, so the interest in early American popular music–call it "Americana" if you must–is something of a fad. But Willie knows well the strength of silk to be found in some of those old filigrees.

The songs, all by Willie, tell of loves lost and found, bittersweet memory and the solace of prayer. Taken together, they create a sense of resignation turning to cautious optimism, akin to the relief autumn can bring after a tumultuous summer. This album is not perhaps quite as openly thematic as  Red Headed Stranger, Willie’s tribute to the Old West, but it is strongly affecting. Each listening has strengthened the album’s emotional depth for me.

Willie’s production emphasizes how special this album must have been to him. He sets the songs in a spare and familial setting, playing his own nylon string guitar and singing, his sister playing foursquare piano, longtime pal Jody Payne on rhythm guitar and guest fiddler Johnny Gimble. That’s it. It all harkens back a time when, of an evening, family and close friends would gather in the parlor to make music in a common spirit. One small quibble: I wish the recording quality contributed more to the parlor feel, as it did so much to the Rowan/Douglas album. Willie and his guitar sound a bit too large with respect to the other musicians, so we lose the sense of them all playing together in a real space, but otherwise this is a fine recording.

As the album progresses, love lost and prayers unsaid or unanswered slowly turn to love found and prayers acknowledged. In the first song, "She is Gone," the singer acknowledges without regret that his life has changed forever with the loss–by death?–of his loved one: "She is gone, but she was here, and her presence is still heavy in the air. Oh, what a taste of human love, now she’s gone and it don’t matter anymore." In "I’m Not Trying to Forget You Anymore," the singer realizes the warmth of remembered passion now brings more joy than pain. "We were always more than lovers and I’m still your friend. And if I had the chance, I’d do it all again." A gentle waltz, "Too Sick to Pray" is a short chat with God by someone who’s been down and just wanted to let the Lord know he’s now back on his feet–for a while. In another waltz, "I’m Waiting Forever," the singer says "Forever ain’t no time at all, it’s only the time between telephone calls," and, while he is waiting, again, hangs on to the memory of love.

Willie has recorded "I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes" once before, on the soundtrack to "Honeysuckle Rose," but it fits perfectly here, as the album’s mood turns optimistic. I listened to  Spirit three or for times before I caught the pun in this song’s title: the singer saying to his lover both that she is now an inextricable part of his sense of being, and, more mundanely, that it seems she is now assuming they will move in together. In the beautifully sweet "It’s a Dream Come True," a love long sought has finally been found. The emotional climax of the album is "I Thought About You, Lord," where Gimble’s violin whispers eloquently above Bobbie Nelson’s piano as Willie reflects on the joys of his life and the source of them, and his voice for the first time sings out strongly with hope.

The album is framed by the instrumental "Matador," which sounds like an elegy to a fallen bullfighter. Two instrumental waltzes provide other interludes. "Mariachi" is a Spanish waltz in a minor key, buoyantly performed. "Spirit of E9" is a beautiful slow country waltz. (Why are slow country waltzes so sexy?) The many waltzes ("Your Memory Won’t Die in My Grave" is another) certainly contribute to the old-fashioned feel of the album.

I guess you’ll have figured out by now that I consider this one of those special albums Willie blesses us with every decade or so. Like his 1978 album  Stardust,  Spirit reminds us yet again that Willie Nelson is not really just a country artist, but one of the best singers in–and of–America. Especially so when, as here, he is singing his own strong and beautiful songs.–  Glenn Brooks


Willie Nelson, lead guitar and vocals; Bobbie Nelson, piano; Johnny Gimble, violin; Jody Payne, rhythm guitar and harmony vocals.


Produced by Willie Nelson; recorded and mixed by Joe Gracey; mastered by Denny Purcell and Joe Gracey.

song titles

Matador • She Is Gone • Your Memory Won’t Die in My Grave • I’m Not Trying to Forget You Anymore • Too Sickto Pray • Mariachi • I’m Waiting Forever • We Don’t Run • I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes • It’s a Dream Come True • I Thought About You, Lord • Spirit of E9 • Matador

Copyright © 1997 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.