A common thought you hear expressed from songwriters when they record a song written by someone else is “I picked that song because it sounded like something I had lived,” or that the song was “like something I would’ve written.” Such sentiments are surely the steam that powered country music icon Willie Nelson when he picked songs for his second Frank Sinatra tribute collection, That’s Life.
The follow up to Nelson’s 2018 Sinatra-inspired album My Way, comes only a few months after the Red Headed Stranger’s latest, excellent album of original material, 2020’s First Rose of Spring. Thanks to the boldly vulnerable, expertly translated results of That’s Life, it seems as though the only thing more reliable than Nelson’s ability to churn out one fine record after another is his undying affinity for the jazzy pages of the American Songbook.
For younger country music fans, or for the uninitiated at any age, the notion of Nelson singing Sinatra songs might sound a tad offbeat, but its anything but. Sure, Nelson has long involved himself in some head-scratching collaborations, but for the most part, Nelson has been nothing short of triumphant in terms of working with artists from outside of the country genre. And when it comes to classy pop standards or jazz-inflected efforts, Nelson is nothing if not a grizzled veteran.
Long before he recorded that initial Sinatra tribute record, the Country Music Hall of Famer recorded a killer record with famed jazz bandleader Wynton Marsalis in 2008. And of course, Stardust, the transcendent 1977 LP featuring Nelson’s favorite 20th century pop standards including his take on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” cemented Nelson as a skilled boundary-hopping recording artist a generation ago.
When viewed through not only Willie’s pop crooner filter, but with the understanding that much of his recent albums deal heavily on the meditation of his own mortality, That’s Life immediately carries more weight than a typical tribute record often will.
It’s not that Nelson has turned this into a gloomy, moody record. Many of the songs are rather playful and have been treated by Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon as such. The album opening “Nice Work if You Can Get It” is a jaunty piano-led number, while “Just In Time” is a jazzed-up, lounge-ready tune where Nelson capably hits a few higher notes than he’s attempted on his own recent records.
Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Luck Be a Lady” also fit into the jolly side of the emotional scale, Willie’s voice doesn’t quite keep up with the more up-tempo arrangements. A better vehicle for Willie’s current state of vocal abilities is the title track, where Nelson’s trademark behind-the-beat phrasing fit brilliantly with an elegant electric guitar going for a brisk walk alongside him.
On the lower, slower end of the street lies the dimly lit dive bar where the lonely piano tune “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” would be well suited. One listen to the lush orchestration of “Cottage For Sale” will bring to mind those signature black and white photos of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing into the mic at Capitol Studios with dozens of seated orchestra musicians surrounding him.
On top of blaring brass and a gently galloping piano, “You Make Me Feel So Young” offered the peek into the sunset we’ve seen in the past few Nelson records. Closing out the record, “Lonesome Road” begins as a Sinatra-style mortality tune, but beautifully veers into a flourishing gospel vibe, for an ideal Nelson-tinged coda.
At this point in his remarkable career, it would be missing the point to compare any of Nelson’s releases to other modern country efforts. The question isn’t whether or not this album is a fine record—although it is. The only question that matters now is does this album warrant a place in the collection of the Willie Nelson fan, and that answer is a rather easy yes.