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First Listen: Willie Nelson, 'Band Of Brothers'

Willie Nelson's new album, <em>Band of Brothers</em>, comes out June 17.
David McClister
Courtesy of the artist
Willie Nelson's new album, Band of Brothers, comes out June 17.

When Willie Nelson was a young hustler selling songs to Patsy Cline's people, he probably never thought he'd become the crowd-anointed sage of country music. But that's what happened as the Redheaded Stranger went gray, turned smoking weed into a brand and a virtue, and produced a discography that added up to its own American Songbook. Nelson's gentle persona and approach has always somewhat masked his fire: to have hits; to play his legendarily worn guitar, Trigger, with killer precision; and to sing, in that quiet voice, with skill that matches the jazz greats who've inspired him. On Band of Brothers, Nelson's first album of mostly original material in 18 years, he calmly asks listeners to consider his whole person.

He still embraces his Yoda role. (Nelson can't avoid it; someone's even made a paper doll of Nelson and the Star Wars sage, combined.) "Bring It On" opens Band of Brothers with a cowboy lope and an inspirational salvo: "It's written in the Good Book that we'll never be asked to take any more than we can," Nelson sings, his reedy tenor growing declarative. "Sounds like a good plan." Within this first track, he's gotten the guru job out of the way.

Then come other moods. "The Wall" is confessional without being in the least bit sappy, reminiscent of the writing of Nelson's friend Kris Kristofferson. "Wives and Girlfriends" and "Crazy Like Me" bring the bawdy honky-tonk humor, giving Nelson's band of unfussy virtuosos a chance to pick up the pace. "Hard to Be an Outlaw," a Billie Joe Shaver song (originally recorded as a duet with Nelson) about aging out of the country bad-boy role, becomes wry in Nelson's hands, more like the reflections of Mad Men's Roger Sterling than a Game of Thrones-style howl of the Hound.

Band of Brothers is a self-portrait of a long, up-and-down life — specifically the life of an artist. The title track pays tribute to the community ("a band of brothers, and sisters, and whatever") that Nelson has built with his fellow players and his fans. "The Git Go," another Shaver song performed here as a bluesy duet with Jamey Johnson, adds in the element of protest against the capitalist straight life. "The Songwriters," co-written by another soft-spoken country veteran, Bill Anderson, offers a bit of gloating about the bohemian life. "Guitar in the Corner" acknowledges the darker times, when inspiration doesn't come.

Nelson, who recently turned 81, lets his voice wobble at times, which mostly adds pathos. But his phrasing remains the best — not only in country, but arguably in all of popular music. No one drifts as purposefully as Willie Nelson when he's letting a melody settle in his bones. His voice is the thought process personified. The players and longtime producer (and co-writer) Buddy Cannon give that voice plenty of room on Band of Brothers, letting it shape arrangements that contrast with most mainstream country the way a clear evening sky contrasts with a crowded nightscape of electronic billboards.

The thing about Nelson inhabiting that Yoda role is that he refuses to make it a cliché. The man possesses actual wisdom — the musical kind, more than anything, but the philosophical kind, too. Band of Brothers is a gift to all of us who look to Nelson for impeccable craft and tender insight. Sage? Sure. Here, though, he's also wonderfully relatable.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.