Willie Nelson


I once interviewed the venerable country songwriter Harlan Howard. When I asked him who his favorite songwriter was, Harlan didn't hesitate for a moment. "Cindy Walker," he said. "She's the greatest country songwriter I've ever heard."

Willie Nelson must agree. For his latest album, he's recorded a baker's dozen of Walker's finest, and he's done it old school, with producer Fred Foster at the controls and instrumental backing that sounds like a classic early '60s album (complete with Floyd Cramer piano licks and Jordanaire-style background vocals).

A little about Cindy Walker. Born in Mart, Texas in 1918, she made her way to Hollywood in the early 40s, scoring hits with Bing Crosby, and on her own ("When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold"). In the mid-50s, she turned to songwriting full-time, penning hits for Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Jim Reeves, Roy Orbison and many others. Walker's approach was to write the words and melody, without accompaniment. Unable to play an instrument, she enlisted her mother to provide piano accompaniment. Ms. Walker is alive and well, and reportedly, still writing.

Every song here is near perfect. "Bubbles In My Beer" and "Don't Be Ashamed Of Your Age" are western swingers with the kind of economy and elegance of language that brings to mind Irving Berlin at his best. As any songwriter knows, these are the most difficult songs to write, and Walker pulls them off seamlessly. She's equally adept on the ballads. Perhaps her best-known song, "You Don't Know Me," is still one of the most aching portraits of unrequited love ever written. "To you I'm just a friend / that's all I've ever been / but you don't know me," says so much in so few words.

With all this wonderful songwriting on display, it's easy to forget about the artist delivering the tunes. Willie Nelson's feel for the material is warm and conversational throughout. He's happy to walk a step behind the songs, letting them do the work. In some ways, Willie has become the successor to Sinatra, in the way that he places emphasis on the emotional story of a lyric. On "It's All Your Fault," when he sings, "It's all your fault when I'm a grandpa / If my grandkids don't call you grandma / I'll just tell them it's all your fault," he conveys a perfect combination of humor and heartbreak.

For fans of classic country music, this record is a must. For songwriters, it's a how-to textbook. • Bill DeMain

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willienelson.com      losthighwayrecords.com

check out this interview with Cindy Walker

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