If country radio is a young man’s game, there is no age limit for outlaws. If you add up the ages of these three men, you get 231. In ascending order, Steve Earle is 67, Ray Wylie Hubbard is 75 and Willie Nelson will turn 90 next year.
Fans of outlaw country can grab a ticket for February 2023’s Outlaw Country Cruise, which stops off in Mexico and the Bahamas and has booked acts such as Vandoliers, Mike and the Moonpies, Lucinda Williams, The Mavericks…and Ray Wylie Hubbard and Steve Earle. Willie is helming another Farm Aid event this September, with Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Margo Price and Dave Matthews already confirmed.
Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Life
Willie put out his 98th album this April on the day he turned 89. As with his recent albums, his producer Buddy Cannon sends him songs to sing over, but Buddy has put a call out for other writers.
The opening love song I’ll Love You Till The Day I Die was what I hope is the first of many co-writes between Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton, and I expect Chris will record a version of it one day. The excellent title track (‘If I ever get old, I’ll still love the road’) was written by Shawn Camp, who both produced Guy Clark’s late albums and co-wrote Two Pina Coladas, which hopefully bought him a house.
It is one of several tracks on which Mickey Raphael adds flecks of harmonica; he’s a sort of country version of Stevie Wonder because you always know it’s Mickey when he blows on a Willie Nelson song. They include album closer Leave You With A Smile, a song to a partner from a man determined to improve on how he treats his woman. The message sounds even more tender coming from the mouth of a man who has been in the business since the 1950s.
Shawn also wrote We’re Not Happy (Till You’re Not Happy), a song about the strains of gambling (‘Here comes Moneybags again’) with a brief reference to Willie’s beloved marijuana. I Don’t Go To Funerals is another humorous song, in the tenor of Still Not Dead or I’m My Own Grandpa, although the second verse checking off Willie’s old friends (Waylon, Patsy Cline, Freddy Powers) is poignant.
As you would expect, a lot of songs about looking in the rear view mirror: My Heart Was A Dancer, troubadour anthem Me And My Partner, the sombre Dreamin’ Again, Dusty Bottles (‘pour a finer glass of wine…and wisdom only comes with time’) and Live Every Day, which encourages the listener to ‘pick up the phone’ to an old friend and to do as you would be done by.
Buddy Cannon’s production is extraordinary throughout the album, particularly Energy Follows Thought with its long accordion chords and the tender Don’t Touch Me There (‘that’s where my heart is’). There’s also a cover of Tower of Song (‘I ache in the places where I used to play’), the Leonard Cohen song in which he addresses Hank Williams while stating ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice’. Willie also includes a gorgeous cover of the Lennon/McCartney number With A Little Help From My Friends, with a lot of help from Mickey’s harmonica.
Willie Nelson, who wrote some country standards that will be sung in a century’s time, should be remembered just as those three men are. At this stage of Willie’s career, it’s all legacy consolidation. Those 90th birthday celebrations next year will be something special.
Steve Earle – Jerry Jeff
At a mere 67 years old, Steve has been in rock’n’roll for half a century now. He’s already buried his son Justin Townes, whose songs Steve covered on the second of his trilogy of albums. The first was dedicated to Guy Clark and the third is in honour of Jerry Jeff Walker, the doyen of Red Dirt music who settled in Austin and became the mayor of the scene.
Jerry Jeff wrote a song about a man who’ll dance for you called Mr Bojangles, which Robbie Williams recorded for his swing album in the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr. Steve, who has of course included his take on it, was keen to remind the world that Jerry Jeff wrote more than just that tune, so we have nine other compositions.
Steve seems to have picked up a habit of growling after every line, which becomes grating, but the spirit is there on the immaculate set opener Gettin’ By, which would sound great in the sort of Austin saloon that Jerry Jeff made his own. Likewise Gypsy Songman and the wry I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me).
Charlie Dunn introduces listeners to a figure of the Austin scene ‘with a smile and a leathery face’, which is apt as he made boots for the famous, a kind of Nudie Cohen of the Texas scene. Hill Country Rain has the barroom groove of a Bruce Springsteen tune, again unsurprising as Steve modelled his breakthrough on Bruce.
The more tender tracks include Little Bird, which sounds like a Steve Earle song with its gentle melody, and Jerry Jeff’s songs about his dad, My Old Man and Wheel. On the latter he describes helping his dad in the field, which Steve arranges expertly. The album concludes with Old Road, where Steve sings a cappella and accompanies himself on harmonica, letting Jerry Jeff’s words reverberate with the listener so they don’t forget a great American artist whose spirit lives in Steve Earle.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Co-Starring Too
Born in Oklahoma but a resident of Texas as a child, Ray wrote the Jerry Jeff Walker song Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother and helped Eric Church on his Rolling Stones pastiche Desperate Man. Having already released a 2020 collection with mates including Pam Tillis, Ronnie Dunn, Ashley McBryde and The Cadillac Three, he’s repeated the trick, recording that Chief tune with The Band of Heathens as an album closer that turns it into a swamp blues tune.
Before it, we have ten other Ray-written tunes. Handily for this piece, both Willie Nelson and Steve Earle are among the guests. Willie joins him on the elegiac Stone Blind Horses, which means Ray has to find the harmony with Willie’s wandering vocal lines. Steve is on Hellbent For Leather, where the pair leave LA to go to Oklahoma, tired of life in California.
Fancy Boys is a satire on Nashville’s desire for hunks, a far cry from the original outlaw Hank Williams. There’s also a lyrical nod to the final line of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. Lzzy Hale from Halestorm adds some pizzazz on Naturally Wild, set in a club in Austin and driven by a fine riff. The solo is appropriately blistering. Groove, meanwhile, lists old songs by Mavis Staples, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Al Green while emphasising the ‘soulful groove’ running through them all.
Ray pays homage to today’s Red Dirt scene by recruiting Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers and Cody Canada on the groovetastic Even If My Wheels Fall Off, written with Wade and with resolute determination in the message ‘I ain’t slowin’ down’. Sticking with the great state, Texas Wild Side is another rifftastic song that namechecks Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver who ‘always tell the truth’.
Only A Fool brings the Lord and the 19th Amendment into the song to underline the message that ‘only a fool a’disrespect a woman’. Supporting that credo, Wynonna appears on the song Pretty Reckless (Ray loves a woman who ‘wears a bullet on her necklace’) along with Bob Dylan’s guitar player Charlie Sexton.
Another groove-based rock’n’roll song Ride Or Die recruits Heart’s Ann Wilson, Ringo Starr (who turns 82 this month), guitar wizard Steve Lukather and Ray’s son Lucas. It is a measure of the respect shown to Ray that he can once again gather a galaxy of stars to record versions of some of his copyrights.