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Willie Nelson's Voice And Spirit Remain Strong On 'Ride Me Back Home'


This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Willie Nelson's new country album called "Ride Me Back Home." Ken says Nelson sounds vigorous and upbeat on an album about the passage of time and aging.


WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Time is my friend, my friend. The more I reject it, the more that it kicks in, just enough to keep me on my toes. I say, come on, time. I've beat you before. Come on, time. What have you got for me this time? I'll take your words of wisdom. I'll try to make them rhyme. Hey, it's just me and you again. Come on, time.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Time is my friend, Willie Nelson sings on his new album "Ride Me Back Home." The notion that time is a friend to an 86-year-old man is more than a bit surprising, but Nelson seems to have come to terms with what it means to get old. Deep into the song, he sings, time, as you pass me by, why did you leave these lines on my face? You sure have put me in my place.

Anyone else would've set such sentiments to a melancholy tune or a grimly contemplative one. Willie, however, sings his words over a giddy-up, prancing beat. He rides both the melody and the lyrics on other songs here, as well.


NELSON: (Singing) We rode into battle, barebacked and saddled. You took the wound in your side. You pulled the sleds, and you pulled the wagons. You gave them somewhere to hide. Now they don't need you, and there's no one to feed you. And there's fences where you used to roam. I wish I could gather up all of your brothers, and you would just ride me back home.

TUCKER: That's "Ride Me Back Home," the title song. Nelson makes it another metaphor for a more permanent kind of resting place. You can hear this album as the completion of a trilogy of albums about aging, begun in 2017's "God's Problem Child" and continued in 2018's "Last Man Standing." I think it's the best of the three, as well as the most idiosyncratic.

Only Willie Nelson, master interpreter, could coax me into listening to a cover of Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are," a song I would otherwise happily go to my own grave never hearing again. Nelson's other covers include this gorgeous version of a Guy Clark song, "My Favorite Picture Of You."


NELSON: (Singing) My favorite picture of you is the one where you're staring straight into the lens. It's just a Polaroid shot someone took on the spot - no beginning, no end, just a moment in time that you can't have back. You never left, but your bags were packed just in case. My favorite picture of you is bent, and it's faded. And it's pinned to my wall. Oh, and you were so angry that it's hard to believe that we were lovers at all.

TUCKER: "My Favorite Picture Of You" very much fits into this album's recurring theme, as Nelson comes down hard on the line, just a moment in time that you can't have back. Willie is thinking these days about all the moments he's experienced, the pleasures he's had, the work he's done. And he's savoring the labor he still can do, addressing all this directly on "One More Song To Write."


NELSON: (Singing) I got one more song to write. I've got one more bridge to burn. I've got one more endless night, one more lesson to be learned. One more hill to climb, and it's somewhere in my mind. I'll know it when it's right. I've got one more song to write.

TUCKER: This album, "Ride Me Back Home," certainly doesn't sound like Willie Nelson's final statement about anything. It's a lively, restless collection that contains solid new material and a keen sense of self-scholarship. Perhaps only Willie himself remembered "Stay Away From Lonely Places," a song tucked deep into a 1972 album. But he breathes new life into it here.

His voice and his spirit remain strong and supple. Interested in mortality but never its slave, Willie Nelson may be preparing to greet death. But if so, he's doing it in the most jaunty way possible.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Willie Nelson's new album "Ride Me Back Home."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Ava DuVernay, producer, director and co-writer of the Netflix series "When They See Us," which depicts the story of the Central Park Five from the perspective of the five black and brown boys who were accused of brutally raping a woman in the park in 1989. They spent years in prison, but their convictions were vacated when the actual rapist confessed. DuVernay also directed the film "Selma" and the documentary "13th" about racial injustice in the justice system. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


NELSON: (Singing) Stay away from lonely places. Just follow the crowd, and stay around familiar faces. And play the music loud. Be seen at all the parties, and dress yourself in style. And stay away from lonely places for a while. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.