fri 14/06/2024

Album: Willie Nelson - I Don't Know a Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Willie Nelson - I Don't Know a Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard

Album: Willie Nelson - I Don't Know a Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard

A 90th-birthday album from a true country legend

Willie keeps 'em coming

I have to confess, the name Harlan Howard meant little or nothing to me – but as I pressed play and the first twanging guitar notes of “Tiger by the Tail” filled the room, I quickly got the picture.

Willie Nelson’s latest album celebrates the extraordinary work of the Detroit-born songwriter whose heart belonged to Nashville from an early age. The man who defined country music as “three chords and the truth” wrote (in some cases, co-wrote) songs such as “Heartaches by the Dozen”, “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” and “I Fall to Pieces”, a country classic if ever there was one and a song most associated with Patsy Cline, though the rockier Linda Ronstadt cover is equally memorable.

None of those numbers is among the 10 songs covered here – nor, thankfully, is the mawkish “No Charge”, which was a Tammy Wynette staple. But the songs are all familiar, some more so than others, and they long ago passed into the country canon, a part of the Nashville DNA. And many of them crossed over to other genres. “Busted”, for example, was a hit for the great Ray Charles, and while it’s impossible to listen to the song without thinking of Brother Ray (and perhaps Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, or Blood, Sweat and Tears), Nelson makes it his own. So, Harlan sure deserves his place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

As a child, Howard listened to the Grand Ole Opry radio show. Years later he recalled: “I was captured by the songs as much as the singer. They grabbed my heart. The reality of country music moved me. Even when I was a kid, I liked the sad songs… songs that talked about true life. I recognized this music as a simple plea. It beckoned me.” And he answered the call in spectacular fashion.

Nelson was spotted by Jerry Wexler while sitting in with Howard back in 1971, gaining the recording contract that allowed him to roam so widely – recent albums have included tributes to George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra. And I Don’t Know a Thing About Love is a real doozy, an album with which it’s impossible not to fall in love. It finds Nelson with his usual crew: long-time collaborator Buddy Cannon and a studio line-up that includes Larry Paxton on bass, Lonnie Wilson on drums, plus Mike Johnson on steel guitar and Mickey Raphael on harmonica, both of whom give the album its distinctive and beguiling timbre.

Songs of lost love and hard times these may be, but they are, as Howard suggested, irresistible. The music bowls along, replete with the signature sounds and riffs of country music delivered by great musicians. The soft-shoe shuffle of “She Called Me Baby” demands to be on repeat, and the guitar and harmonica on “Too Many Rivers” transport you straight to the Ryman. “Streets of Baltimore” (a hit for Bobby Bare but probably most familiar in the Gram Parsons version used for The Wire) deals in that well-worn country trope of the hard-working husband trying to keep the love of his woman. The longing and regret when he can't are palpable. Howard’s setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Beautiful Annabel Lee” closes this, Nelson’s 98th studio album, his voice still remarkably secure, even on the delicate melismata.

Having just bagged Country Music Album of the Year at the Grammys with A Beautiful Time, Willie Nelson is poised to set out on a 12-date tour that will conclude with an all-star 90th birthday bash at the Hollywood Bowl. What a guy!

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