Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Willie Nelson and the Offenders [extended]

  • Yesterday's Wine [RCA Victor, 1971] B+
  • Shotgun Willie [Atlantic, 1973] B+
  • Phases and Stages [Atlantic, 1974] A-
  • Red Headed Stranger [Columbia, 1975] B-
  • The Sound in Your Mind [Columbia, 1976] B-
  • To Lefty from Willie [Columbia, 1977] B+
  • Waylon and Willie [RCA Victor, 1978] B+
  • Stardust [Columbia, 1978] A-
  • Face of a Fighter [Lone Star, 1978] A-
  • Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • One for the Road [Columbia, 1979] B-
  • San Antonio Rose [Columbia, 1980] B+
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) [Columbia, 1981] B+
  • Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982] B+
  • In the Jailhouse Now [Columbia, 1982] A-
  • The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982] B-
  • Old Friends [Columbia, 1982] B
  • Tougher Than Leather [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Without a Song [Columbia, 1983] C+
  • Take It to the Limit [Columbia, 1983] B-
  • WWII [RCA Victor, 1983] B-
  • Brand on My Heart [Columbia, 1985] A
  • Me and Paul [Columbia, 1985] A-
  • A Horse Called Music [Columbia, 1989] B
  • Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971) [Rhino, 1991] A
  • Across the Borderline [Columbia, 1993] ***
  • Moonlight Becomes You [Justice, 1994] ***
  • Healing Hands of Time [Liberty, 1994] *
  • Spirit [Island, 1996] A-
  • I Let My Mind Wander [Kingfisher, 1997] A-
  • Teatro [Island, 1998] **
  • Night and Day [Pedernales/FreeFalls, 1999] A
  • Milk Cow Blues [Island, 2000] *
  • Me and the Drummer [Luck, 2000] ***
  • Rainbow Connection [Island, 2001] A-
  • The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud
  • You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker [Lost Highway, 2006] ***
  • Live From Austin TX [New West, 2006] **
  • Songbird [Lost Highway, 2006] *
  • Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007] A-
  • Moment of Forever [Lost Highway, 2008] **
  • Two Men With the Blues [Blue Note, 2008] **
  • Texas in My Soul [American Beat, 2008] Choice Cuts
  • American Classic [Blue Note, 2009] B+
  • Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009] A
  • Naked Willie [RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2009] ***
  • Lost Highway [Lost Highway, 2009] Choice Cuts
  • Country Music [Rounder, 2010] **
  • Remember Me, Vol. 1 [R&J, 2011] **
  • Heroes [Legacy, 2012] B+
  • Let's Face the Music and Dance [Legacy, 2013] *
  • Band of Brothers [Legacy, 2014] ***
  • December Day [Legacy, 2014] A
  • Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015] ***
  • Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin [Legacy, 2016] **
  • For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price [Legacy, 2016] *
  • God's Problem Child [Legacy, 2017] *
  • Last Man Standing [Legacy, 2018] A
  • My Way [Legacy, 2018] *

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Willie Nelson: Yesterday's Wine [RCA Victor, 1971]
The great Nashville songsmith has never bowled anyone over with his singing, and here he finds the concept to match. Since "perfect man" has already been and gone, he announces at the outset, "the voice of imperfect man must now be made manifest, and I have been chosen as the most likely candidate." Most of these songs--though not the two best, "Yesterday's Wine" and "Me and Paul"--are on religious themes, and on more than one he seems to be playing the part of God's messenger, which tends to limit their general relevance. But if that's how he got to "These Are Difficult Times," maybe it was worth it. Anyway, sometimes his nonsinging bowls me over. B+

Willie Nelson: Shotgun Willie [Atlantic, 1973]
This attempt to turn Nelson into a star runs into trouble when it induces him to outshout Memphis horns or Western swing, and his unaccompanied-acoustic version of "A Song for You" takes some getting used to. After a while, though, you notice that you're noticing every song. And then you realize that the two you notice most--the slyly vengeful "Sad Songs and Waltzes" and the cuckold's tragedy "She's Not for You"--are also the two oldest. A star, eh? B+

Willie Nelson: Phases and Stages [Atlantic, 1974]
Although the musical concept-theme that pops up here and there is unnecessarily explicit, the songs more than justify it. On the woman's side of the breakup, try "Washing the Dishes" (soap gets in your eyes) or "Sister's Coming Home"/"Down at the Corner Beer Joint" (going home to mother as non-joke); on the man's, "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" (but it is) and "Pick Up the Tempo" (on the rebound). What's more, Nelson's combination of soft-spoken off-key and battered honky-tonk matches the bare, responsive country music Jerry Wexler has gotten out of the Muscle Shoals regulars. Payoff: the two Mike Lewis string arrangements are actually climactic. A-

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger [Columbia, 1975]
This tale of a murdering preacher wild in his abandonment has inspired much loose talk about violence and Western myth. Ed Ward argues that the Stranger is a fantasy of vengeance rejected on side two, but all I hear is that he's redeemed by another woman there--if she leaves him, he'll kill her too. Some of the individual pieces are quite nice, but the gestalt is the concept album at its most counterproductive--the lyrics render the nostalgic instrumental parts unnecessarily ironic and lose additional charm in narrative context. B-

Willie Nelson: The Sound in Your Mind [Columbia, 1976]
"That Lucky Old Sun" sounds better than "Amazing Grace"; Steve Fromholz's "I'd Have to Be Crazy" sounds better than Willie's "The Sound in Your Mind." Willie had better watch it--Major Artists can't grind out Product the way Country Music Stars do or people'll start thinkin' they're slippin'. B-

Willie Nelson: To Lefty from Willie [Columbia, 1977]
Although Nelson earned his legend as a songwriter, he's turning into a singer now that profit-taking time has come--does broaden one. The amazing thing is that he gets away with it. On this heartfelt if opportune farewell to Lefty Frizzell, his cracks and creaks and precisely conversational timing hold their own against the more conventionally exquisite singing of Merle Haggard or Frizzell himself. Of course, the material doesn't hurt. B+

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: Waylon and Willie [RCA Victor, 1978]
Commercially, this collaboration was a sure shot. They could have hammed it up or run through on automatic; they could even have avoided connecting altogether. But as it happens, this is the strongest album either has made in a while, as full of enthusiasm and devoid of posturing as a dressing-room singout. As in most dressing-room singouts, though, things get a little too loose at times--sometimes it's hard to tell whether they remember the words. B+

Willie Nelson: Stardust [Columbia, 1978]
I can always do without "Unchained Melody," and at times I wish he'd pick up the tempo. Basically, though, I'm real happy this record exists, not just because Nelson can be a great interpretive singer--his "Moonlight in Vermont" is a revelation--but because he's provided me with ten great popular songs that I've never had much emotional access to. Standards that deserve the name--felt, deliberate, schmaltz-free. A-

Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter [Lone Star, 1978]
It's been four years since Nelson put together an album of the mournful country love songs that earned him an outlaw's independence, and even that was a concept job. These ten slow songs--maybe six special, no clinkers--were recorded thirteen years before that, apparently as demos, and the music is wonderful. Nelson's voice has never come on more fragile or deliberate--you can almost hear him figuring out what commonplace he's going to illuminate next--and his bland sounds equally sure-footed. Rarely is there a lick you haven't heard somewhere before, but the lick always seems just a leetle different, which may be because it's so exquisitely timed and may be because it's just a leetle different. A-

Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson [Columbia, 1979]
Needless to say, he also outsings Kristofferson, and without much extra in the god-given department, though the high note that climaxes "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" is a doozy. But his inborn tact is wasted on this material. As Al Green, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, and even Ray Price have proven, the way to put such arrant corn across is to pull out the stops. B-

Willie Nelson & Leon Russell: One for the Road [Columbia, 1979]
As the duo dueted swingingly through "I Saw the Light" and "Heartbreak Hotel" on the first of these four sides, I thought Willie had somehow gotten away with yet another triumphant nonalbum, but the slack B-Western self-parody of "Don't Fence Me In" and "Sioux City Sue" on side two set me straight. And sides three and four, where Leon accompanies Willie through another batch of stardust, are a mistake--even if the music were as good (compare this "Lucky Old Sun" to the one on Sound in Your Mind), it's too soon for a reprise. Frank Sinatra he's not. B-

Willie Nelson & Ray Price: San Antonio Rose [Columbia, 1980]
Nelson's groove has resembled a rut since he hit paydirt with Stardust, so give a cheer--maybe he's out of it. Country standards gone vaguely Western swing (in Nashville, without horns), this is nothing startling, but the false steps and lackadaisical jams of the live doubles and the Leon Russell job are gone. Price, who tends to posture in countrypolitan settings, thrives on the relaxed atmosphere. People who don't know the originals are going to fall in love. B+

Willie Nelson: Somewhere Over the Rainbow [Columbia, 1981]
Nelson's best since Stardust isn't quite the rehash it seems to be. The often uptempo music is suffused with Western swing, the standards not all that standard. Which would be great if only Nelson's ecumenicism didn't run in the direction of "My Mother's Eyes," the aforementioned "Over the Rainbow," and a jazzed-up "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." B+

Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (and Some That Will Be) [Columbia, 1981]
Nelson's strength is hitting a song on the button while glancing off in the other direction, and a compilation is no way to highlight it--the necessarily haphazard structure makes him seem not so much casual as indolent. He needs a little album structure--standards, collaboration, half-assed narrative--to tone things up. Song for song, relaxing; on the whole, mushy. B+

Merle Haggard/Willie Nelson: Pancho and Lefty [Columbia, 1982]
Haggard hasn't sung with so much care in years, which is obviously Nelson's doing--the difference between this "Half a Man" and the one on Going Where the Lonely Go is the difference between a husband who doesn't deserve to be cut down and a shit who does. But if Waylon brings out Willie's self-righteousness, Merle brings out his self-pity--Leona Williams doesn't want you to know it, but both of these boys have had more soft places to fall than any good man needs. B+

Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce: In the Jailhouse Now [Columbia, 1982]
The strained nasality of Pierce's endless string of '50s honky-tonk hits hasn't aged especially well, but his voice sure has--any suggestion of the callow or awkward is long since gone, which means that for somebody who wasn't there (like me and probably you), some of these remakes sound tougher and more vibrant than the originals. And the originals are honky-tonk standards for a reason. A-

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee: The Winning Hand [Monument, 1982]
This twenty-song mix-and-match isn't even monumental in theory, because two of these "kings and queens of country music" haven't earned their crowns--BL is a rock and roll princess who never really graduated, KK a frog ditto. But BL is also a pleasing bedroom-voiced journeywoman who turns in half of a surprisingly definitive "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning." The other half comes from WN, who's on nine cuts and sounds like he's thinking even when he also sounds like he's asleep. DP teams with WN on a surprisingly definitive "Everything's Beautiful in Its Own Way," but sounds more at home on the album's two utter unlistenables--"Ping Pong," in which DP at her cutesiest is outdone by KK at his klutziest, and "Put It Off Until Tomorrow," in which DP kisses KK's warty little head and he croaks back. B-

Willie Nelson & Roger Miller: Old Friends [Columbia, 1982]
As a staunch admirer of "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" who's had less than no use for Miller since he got serious, I'm almost persuaded by this tribute-to-the-composer cum duo quickie. In fact, one more standout like "Old Friends" (including Ray Price), "Sorry Willie" (didn't know you thought she was your darlin'), and "When a House Is Not a Home" (one of Nelson's patented dry-eyed weepers) would make the difference. B

Willie Nelson: Tougher Than Leather [Columbia, 1983]
In the end, I don't know what the fuck this supposed concept album is trying to say, and if Nelson does he should continue to keep it to himself--something about murder and honor and other romantic clichés. But since he felt duty-bound to write the thing, it does of necessity include a number of those modern rarities, new Willie Nelson songs! Including two that somebody else might actually want to cover: the throwaway coda "Nobody Slides, My Friend" and the new-cowboy advisory "Little Old-Fashioned Karma." Plus, for (symbolic) life, a rousing new version of "Beer Barrel Polka"! C+

Willie Nelson: Without a Song [Columbia, 1983]
With music as subtle as Nelson's you wonder whether you're imagining things. Maybe we've just had it with his shtick--maybe a Martian couldn't tell the difference between this and Stardust. Then again, what do Martians know? Not only is Nelson choosing cornier material--self-serving schlock like the title song, awkward fripperies like "A Dreamer's Holiday"--but the relaxed, let's-wing-it delicacy has simply disappeared. When he tries at all, he usually oversings, and he's finally hitting the wrong clinkers. If you don't believe me, compare this "Autumn Leaves" to Stardust's timeless "September Song." Or ask yourself whether Julio Iglesias doesn't sound right at home on "As Time Goes By." C+

Willie Nelson with Waylon Jennings: Take It to the Limit [Columbia, 1983]
I enjoy this entry all right, with "Why Do I Have To Choose," a cheating song without a moral, the high point. But two things bother me. First, I prefer the songs I've never heard before to those I'm acquainted with to those I know well. Second, Waylon adds something. B-

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: WWII [RCA Victor, 1983]
Last time these two ganged up, Willie kept things honest, but this is Waylon's caper: Willie sings on only half the cuts, and sounds almost as full of himself as Waylon when he does. You'd never know "Mr. Shuck and Jive" was about Jimmy Webb himself, and Willie's own "Write Your Own Songs" makes you wonder whether that "purified country" "music executive" (same guy?) got on old tougher-than-leather's nerves by asking him for a few new ones. Waylon's solo turns on "The Last Cowboy Song" and "The Old Mother's Locket Trick" are the giveaway--the idea is to acknowledge that all this outlaw myth is shuck-and-jive and then make the shuck-and-jive itself seem mythic. But despite some distinguished tunes, only their duet on "Dock of the Bay," which has nothing to do with anything except its own lazy self, does the trick. B-

Willie Nelson & Hank Snow: Brand on My Heart [Columbia, 1985]
If you're tempted by Willie and Double K's Songwriter soundtrack, go on to the next graf. Best thing about his mucho pusho duet compilation with Hank Williams, Julio Iglesias, Lacy J. Dalton, and so forth is its title: Half Nelson. Highwaymen, featuring Johnny Cash on every track plus Waylon and Double K on many, is Outlaws III (or V, who's counting?), with Cash's "Committed to Parkview" providing a therapeutic shot of contemporary realism. Angel Eyes, backed by the Nashville-gone-jazzer guitar of Jackie King, is Nashville-gone-jazzy. The Faron Young collaboration Funny How Time Slips Away is almost on a level with Willie's Ray Price album, but Young's timbre has thickened so moistly you'd swear the Hank Williams he's now imitating is Jr. And so. I've always been put off by Snow's up-north propriety, more Vernon Dalhart than Jimmie Rodgers, but after 70 years his baritone is finally beginning to crack, providing Willie just the opening he needs to loosen the old pro up: without sacrificing a diphthong of his famous enunciation, Snow sounds completely relaxed. The tossed-off serendipity of so many Nelson records translates here into a casually engaging, deftly eclectic bunch of classics and obscurities, Willie's best album since he and Webb Pierce cut In the Jailhouse Now on a long coffee break in 1982. A

Willie Nelson: Me and Paul [Columbia, 1985]
Nothing like a concept to nudge an interpreter's near misses closer to direct hits, but not any concept will do. On 1984's City of New Orleans, Willie added less than nothing to the self-consciously distanced sentimentality of country songs manqué that had their own integrity coming from Arlo Guthrie, Danny O'Keefe, even Dave Loggins. Here the album is dedicated to his hellraising longtime drummer Paul English and the self-conscious distance is from himself. Backed by his road band and singing three Billy Joe Shaver sure shots and nine mostly pre-CBS songs of his own, many of which you'll be certain you know but fail to locate in your record collection, he comes up with his most unassuming and inevitable album since the ten 1961 demos of 1978's Face of a Fighter. A-

Willie Nelson: A Horse Called Music [Columbia, 1989]
Over the four or five albums of a commercial decline that's probably permanent, he's proven more George Jones than Merle Haggard. That is, he's a genius interpreter who always stands a chance of hitting you where you live--even though, like Merle, he still occasionally writes his own, and because of rather than despite the show of laziness the two share. Assuming you can stomach many strings and two pretentious clinkers (the title trope plus one called "If I Were a Painting"), this is his best of the period, maybe because he put the least effort into it--it's when he tries to sing powerfully, or traffics in concepts like the '50s standards of What a Wonderful World, that he flounders. Sometimes, of course, his modest efforts come across flat; sometimes, no doubt, they really are lazy. But most of these murmured tributes to good love getting better and gone bad are touching and apt. B

Willie Nelson: Nite Life: Greatest Hits and Rare Tracks (1959-1971) [Rhino, 1991]
It wasn't a penchant for rock mythos and hairstyle that crossed him over--it was pure-pop generalizations and jazz timing. "Am I Blue," a 1929 copyright for Hollywood lyricist Grant Clarke, sounds no more and no less a natural-born chestnut than "Crazy" or "Funny How Time Slips Away"; conversational strokes like "One in a Row" and "Opportunity to Cry" clue you in with their titles and proceed to amaze you anyway. "Me and Paul"'s understated outlaw narrative points to Red Headed Stranger, but it represents a break. Sooner or later this country nonconformist will go back to his roots and make an album called Stardust. A

Willie Nelson: Across the Borderline [Columbia, 1993]
his best in a coon's age, and a touch too artful all around ("She's Not for You," "Don't Give Up," "American Tune") ***

Willie Nelson: Moonlight Becomes You [Justice, 1994]
Stardust for swinging lovers ("Moonlight Becomes You," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone") ***

Willie Nelson: Healing Hands of Time [Liberty, 1994]
10 standards--six Nelson, four ASCAP--meet more orchestral instruments than you can shake a stick at ("Night Life," "There Are Worse Things Than Being Alone") *

Willie Nelson: Spirit [Island, 1996]
So bare-boned in language, instrumentation, and melodic contour you barely notice it at first, this turns out to be Nelson's strongest new album in over a decade, his most indelible songwriting in at least two. His latest case of love lost leaves him meeting his maker but not his mortality--if his "life will never be the same again," it's not because he's gonna keel over like some 63-year-old. In fact, the pain has fired him up, so that he not only surrounds the winning "We Don't Run" with new standards, but plays the hell out of that acoustic guitar with the big hole in it. A-

Willie Nelson: I Let My Mind Wander [Kingfisher, 1997]
Hardly new music. Nelson's stark, efficient Pamper demos, cut without fuss in 1961, briefly surfaced on Face of a Fighter at Stardust time and are the best things on Rhino's messy three-CD collectorama. Selections vary--this version omits "Face of a Fighter" itself, a loss. But as a songwriter he was on a roll back then, and nobody understood his singing, which means Rhino's Nite Life and RCA's Essential Willie Nelson are cluttered with off-the-rack Nashville arrangements that become a classic catalogue only in spite of their tailoring. These songs are less famous; no "Funny How Time Slips Away" lies in wait. But "Healing Hands of Time," "You Wouldn't Cross the Street To Say Goodbye," and "I Let My Mind Wander" will surprise the hell out of you, especially after you realize you haven't heard them a thousand times before. A-

Willie Nelson: Teatro [Island, 1998]
for all Daniel Lanois's pet drummers, an honorable attempt to recreate his live unflash ("Everywhere I Go," "I've Loved You All Over the World") **

Willie Nelson: Night and Day [Pedernales/FreeFalls, 1999]
In the Nashville era, country instrumental albums have been models of dexterous precision and dispatch dominated by the sterile expanses of the Chet Atkins catalogue, a tradition that shares as much with this gift from God as Nelson's singing does with Brooks & Dunn's. Even simpatico analogies--early string bands, the looser Western swing units, the relaxation Merle Haggard's guys go for, or for that matter Django Reinhardt--don't suggest the casual musicality this long-running off-and-on octet achieves without apparent effort every time it sits down, which happens 150 nights a year. Musicians for life who've achieved a satori that barely skirts virtuosity, they adore the melody. But they adore it after their own fashion, which is Willie's fashion whether he's singing or, as here, only playing lead guitar--pretty much on the note when you listen up, only you don't because the timbre and phrasing are so talky. Is this a species of jazz? Given the awkwardness of the session Nelson once cut with jazz-identified Nashvillian Jackie King, I wouldn't bother calling it that. It's just Willie, who wants folks to think everything he does is simpler than it is and in some mystical sense may be right. A

Willie Nelson: Milk Cow Blues [Island, 2000]
Truth to tell, blues isn't his métier ("Fools Paradise," "Texas Flood"). *

Me and the Drummer [Luck, 2000]
chestnuts roasted in an open studio, Pamper demos-style ("A Moment Isn't Very Long," "Home Motel") ***

Willie Nelson: Rainbow Connection [Island, 2001]
It's another kiddie record gone to seed by another codger who's been around too long to believe in the end of the rainbow. Or has he? A typically ramshackle one-off cut without drums in Nelson's home studio over Christmas break, it makes too much room for daughter Amy and, for some reason, the songs of Mickey Newbury (maybe Mickey's kids could use the royalties). But what you can expect to pay for the illusion of effortlessness is the reality of effortlessness, which is that sometimes it falls on its face. Here that doesn't happen often. "Playmate" and "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" are born again, and where once it was agony to hear Newbury intone the half-past-dead "not all my God-like thoughts, Lord, are defiled," from Nelson that's just one plain truth among many. The truth he wrote himself just last year wants us to know that heaven is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A-

Willie Nelson: The Great Divide [Lost Highway, 2002] Dud

Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker [Lost Highway, 2006]
He owns the title tune now too ("Don't Be Ashamed of Your Age," "Dusty Skies"). ***

Willie Nelson: Live From Austin TX [New West, 2006]
September 1990--making hash of tight versus loose with the same band as 15 years before and after ("Stay All Night," "Help Me Make It Through the Night"). **

Willie Nelson: Songbird [Lost Highway, 2006]
Now he knows--if he wants somebody who can't stop writing songs, better Harlan Howard than Ryan Adams ("Hallelujah," "$1000 Wedding"). *

Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price: Last of the Breed Vol. 1 & 2 [Lost Highway, 2007]
There's only so much three prolific old coots can do with a double-CD of country standards, and they do most of it. Intimate with the literature, they pick winners you've never heard, and they're putting out, always a consideration with the prolific. Yet though the broad-beamed Price obviously needs two of the deftest singers left on the planet, it's his ruined echo chamber of a voice that injects a defining solemnity into the two religious songs, and everything else derives from that. Not much kidding around here--they're feeling their varying ages. But they ain't dead yet. A-

Willie Nelson: Moment of Forever [Lost Highway, 2008]
More songs for an old man, though as ever he's sly about it ("Gravedigger," "The Bob Song"). **

Willie Nelson/Wynton Marsalis: Two Men With the Blues [Blue Note, 2008]
Louis Armstrong was Jimmie Rodgers' sideman, Wynton is Willie's collaborator, and somewhere in there the songs slip away ("Ain't Nobody's Business," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It"). **

Willie Nelson: Texas in My Soul [American Beat, 2008]
"Who Put All My Ex's in Texas" Choice Cuts

Willie Nelson: American Classic [Blue Note, 2009]
Not Stardust--because nothing is, because standards albums pack no conceptual kick anymore, and because producer Booker T. Jones was venturing into the unknown where producer Tommy LiPuma is just doing his cocktail-jazz tap dance. Still, the consistency of approach and material accentuates Nelson's barely perceptible evolution into not just an uncannily canny singer, not just a subtly swinging singer, but one of the greatest singers alive. He's talky, but he's always had heaps of high end and loads of low, and he's expended his resources so nonchalantly that at 76 he has more voice left than many with twice his natural endowment. He takes songs easy without throwing them away, and these were written to hold up their end of that bargain. B+

Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel [Bismeaux, 2009]
Every once in a while Nelson nails a fluke--kiddie album, Hank Snow stopover, sop to his road band. It's the big concepts that fall slightly flat--we're lucky American Classic is as lively as it is. This one falls in between. Three decades ago the late great Jerry Wexler, who signed Nelson to historically R&B Atlantic in 1973 and got Phases and Stages as a reward, came up with the grand scheme of pairing the subliminally jazzy Nelson with the world's greatest Western swing revival band. Only by now Asleep at the Wheel, though in need as always of distinctive vocals and material, has been on the road as long as Bob Wills himself. Enter Wexler's song list and one of the greatest singers alive. Western swing is so rowdy and lighthearted that its chestnuts lack the serious sophistication of great American songbook fare. But they sure are spry, and Nelson is so delighted to be singing them that the band's expertise lights up. Fact is, this compares favorably to Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions box. Fact is, Wills never had a singer in Willie's class either. A

Willie Nelson: Naked Willie [RCA Nashville/Legacy, 2009]
Great that the countrypolitan schmaltz is magically excised--now if only he wasn't still trying to sing over it ("I Let My Mind Wander," "The Party's Over"). ***

Willie Nelson: Lost Highway [Lost Highway, 2009]
"Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other," "Superman," "Ain't Goin' Down on Brokeback Mountain" Choice Cuts

Willie Nelson: Country Music [Rounder, 2010]
Defining the genre according to T Bone Burnett, but not the songs ("Pistol Packin' Mama," "Seaman's Blues"). **

Willie Nelson: Remember Me, Vol. 1 [R&J, 2011]
Great singer renders great songs with 80 to 90 percent of the professionalism his 78 years have imbued ("Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! [That Cigarette]," "Satisfied Mind") **

Willie Nelson: Heroes [Legacy, 2012]
How much you value this entry in the 79-year-old's unchartable catalogue--over and above "Roll Me Up," in which Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, and none other than Snoop Dogg top off the title with the genius punch line "and smoke me when I die"--depends on what you make of Willie's 23-year-old son Lukas, who sings on nine of the tracks and wrote three of them. I think one of his originals is aces, one self-sustaining, and one--which naturally goes on for six minutes--the worst thing on the record. But once I learned to distinguish him from the half-century older Billie Joe Shaver, who undercuts the solemn title track with his patented off-the-cuff aplomb, I decided that Lukas's stoned-hillbilly affect was just what his dad needed to distinguish this particular assortment of what-thes, why-hasn't-he-evers, and written-to-orders from rival entries in his unchartable catalogue. B+

Willie Nelson: Let's Face the Music and Dance [Legacy, 2013]
Not his dance album, silly, this is Willie Nelson--just one of his after-80-you-get-to-sing-whatever-you-want albums ("Let's Face the Music and Dance," "I Can't Give You Anything but Love") *

Willie Nelson: Band of Brothers [Legacy, 2014]
Only the song about songwriting rises above Billy Joe's "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore," but a few come surprisingly close ("The Songwriters," "Hard to Be an Outlaw," "The Git Go") ***

Willie Nelson and Sister Bobbie: December Day [Legacy, 2014]
After the jaunty "Alexander's Ragtime Band," I was disappointed to note the tune density diminishing markedly here. Luckily, on my third and I thought final run-through, I noticed Willie emitting the bandless but far from unmusical or amelodic words "I don't know where I am today/I don't know where I was yesterday/This song has so many notes to play/I just hope that I hit them today." Thus begins the Senile Dementia Suite, which proceeds through Nelson's 2014 "Amnesia" and 1972 "Who'll Buy My Memories," pauses to dig up Al Jolson's "Anniversary Song," and then tops itself off with the inescapably tuneful 2014 "Laws of Nature": "I get my water from the rain/If it don't rain I'll die/Stormy weather saves my life/Sometimes I laugh and wonder why." There are seven songs after that, mostly remakes of self-written chestnuts he's no doubt remade before. Hell, there's another "Is the Better Part Over" on his 2013 album, although you can see how the concept fits better here, as does what is just barely or maybe not a different version of Django Reinhardt's signature "Nuages," which you'll understand when you learn that this is Willie's guitar album way more than it's Bobbie's piano album, which it also is, and yes, the rest of his band pitches in subtly when needed. My mother-in-law played Willie's Stardust on repeat in her last years. I won't be like that--I have more music in my kit. But as a senescence album this definitely tops L. Cohen's. A

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: Django and Jimmie [Legacy, 2015]
They do enjoy themselves, but although you'd think Willie wrote the buoyant one about the world going to pot, instead he wrote the lugubrious one about dreams going to die ("It's All Going to Pot," "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash," "Live This Long") ***

Willie Nelson: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin [Legacy, 2016]
Great singer applies his old no-verses-please-we're-country trick to greater songbook. ("It Ain't Necessarily So," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off") **

Willie Nelson: For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price [Legacy, 2016]
83-year-old Country Icon Who (Supposedly) Had No Voice honors his stentorian elder loud and clear ("Heartaches by the Number," "Invitation to the Blues") *

Willie Nelson: God's Problem Child [Legacy, 2017]
Having invented outlaw, he long ago elected to transcend it ("Still Not Dead," "I Made a Mistake") *

Willie Nelson: Last Man Standing [Legacy, 2018]
As Nelson made room for his 85th birthday, he also beefed up his wee catalogue by adding 11 new tunes written with whippersnapping seventysomething Buddy Cannon. Their organizing concept is wisdom as opposed to age brags proper like "I don't want to be the last man standing / But wait a minute maybe I do." Sometimes the wisdom is rakish: "I gave you a ring then you gave me the finger," "He might not know me 'cause I'm low class / But tell him I'm the one with his head up his ass," "Bad breath is better than no breath at all." Sometimes it's paradoxical: "We were getting along just fine / Just me and me," "So many people, it sure is lonely." Sometimes it's just deep: "It's not something you get over / It's just something you get through." Always it sounds like it started with an idea that popped out of his mouth or sidled in from his subconscious, and who knows, maybe the weed helped--with an eye on retirement income, he's now marketing his own brand, Willie's Reserve. Over impeccably relaxed session work, that wisdom is delivered with a clarity and resonance that would inspire substance abusers half his age to quit drinking if they had his brains or soul. A

Willie Nelson: My Way [Legacy, 2018]
Casually expert interpretations that say more about Sinatra's ingrained gravitas than Nelson's practiced ease ("A Foggy Day," "Summer Wind") *