Though Willie Nelson is a country icon – one who’s career has spanned more than 60 years and has inspired countless artists – he’s long been anchored by a gentle spirit that makes him a powerful leader in the genre, a rare combination that emanates throughout his 69th studio album Ride Me Back Home.
He sets this tone with the title track, an empathetic tribute to his beloved horses. Songwriters Sonny Throckmorton, Debby Throckmorton, Joe Manual and Lucinda Hinton channel Nelson’s pure heart that saved 70 horses from slaughter into the thoughtful ode. Nelson exudes a sense of selflessness as he sings of his desire to create a place of solitude for these animals. “Ride me back home to a much better place, blue skies and sunshine and plenty of space, somewhere where they would just leave you alone, somewhere that you could call home, and you would just ride me back home,” he sings over a soothing, classic country-meets-western melody of piano, steel guitar and harmonica.
Alongside his worthy originals, Ride Me Back Home finds the country legend delivering a series of engaging covers, such as the compelling “My Favorite Picture of You” by the late Guy Clark. The waning piano ballad is one of many that demonstrates Clark’s masterful songwriting, transporting the listener directly into the words that find a man recalling the memories of his ex as he explores old photographs, Clark’s writing so descriptive and poetic that it makes the listener feel like they’re the photographer capturing these moments. “A thousand words in the blink of an eye, the camera loves you and so do I,” Nelson sings, honoring Clark’s words and the emotion behind them.
He again fulfills the poignancy in Clark’s songwriting on “Immigrant Eyes” which offers compassion to the millions of people who sought refuge as they entered Ellis Island, their stories reflected in an elderly man who lived through such a harrowing experience that Nelson brings to life as he sings, “sometimes when I look in my grandfather’s immigrant eyes, I saw that day reflected and couldn’t hold my feelings inside, I saw started with nothing and working hard all of his life, so don’t take it for granted, said grandfather’s immigrant eyes.”
Nelson beautifully balances sympathy with humor, like when he follows the loving “Ride Me Back Home” with “Come on Time,” the 86-year-old playfully exploring his relationship with Father Time, but still finding peace in the passing years. “Time, you’re not fooling me, you’re something I can’t kill…you sure have put me in my place…come on time, it looks like you’re winning the race,” he sings over a quick-paced traditional country melody. He’s a natural at conveying his sense of humor on a cover of Mac Davis’ “It’s Hard to be Humble,” featuring his sons Lukas and Micah Nelson, about a man who’s obsessed with himself, and when he shares he “had a seven year itch, scratched it out in three” on the bluesy “Seven Year Itch,” alongside a warm rendition of Billy Joel’s acceptance-themed hit, “Just the Way You Are.”
What makes the album particularly special is that it trades filler tracks for lyrical gems, each line dripping with imagery. One of the most striking examples of this is in “Stay Away From Lonely Places,” a re-imagination of the deep cut on Nelson’s 1972 album The Words Don’t Fit the Picture. He turns the song from a classic country song with crying steel guitar into a piano number fit for a jazz bar, Nelson’s calming voice still exuding the pain and heartache of a man who must keep isolation at bay in order to keep his heart from breaking any further. It’s here that Nelson exemplifies his lyrical genius, particularly in the words “remember, sorrow prospers in a heart that never smiles” while creating the visual of someone’s outstretched arms waiting to comfort this lonely soul.
If there’s one element Nelson has embraced consistently in his enduring career is the role of a wise storyteller, which he demonstrates on the Skip Denenberg and Dan “Bee” Spears-penned “Nobody’s Listening.” He builds a narrative around society’s lack of awareness, whether it’s a man in need after losing his job and home, or people neglecting the warnings of a devastating storm. It’s in this message that Nelson embodies the truthful soothsayer as he recognizes, “in these days of change and mass communication, seems like no one’s plugged into the sounds of desperation,” and makes a truly personal statement with, “and the singer sings his song, and he tries to impart all the troubles going on weighing heavy on his heart, what good is a song that he has to sing when nobody’s listening, but I know why he has to try to sing, cause he believes that somebody’s listening.” It’s in this last line where Nelson demonstrates his own awareness, as he’s long served as a beacon of trust and guidance to the fans who’ve been heeding his words for decades, along with his insightfulness and unwavering integrity. This is all reflected in Ride Me Back Home, which continues his legacy as an institution not only in music, but the world he so vastly contributes to.