Willie Nelson knows a thing or two about women. He’s married four of them and, most recently, he picked 18 of the best female voices in the business to sing with him on the record, “To All The Girls,” released by Legacy Records in October. Think of this album as a love letter to the opposite sex.
Dolly Parton opens with one of her tunes, “From Here To the Moon and Back,” a slow, sweet waltz, lifted by the great Mickey Raphael’s harmonica.
Lindale’s super star Miranda Lambert brings a world-weary twist to Waylon Jennings’ “She Was No Good For Me.” Like Nelson, Lambert has a way of sliding up to a note – maybe a beat ahead, maybe a beat behind – that adds an element of surprise to the lyrics. The cry in her voice increases the heartache of love gone wrong.
“It Won’t Be Very Long,” a song written by Nelson and Buddy Cannon gives The Secret Sisters a chance to show off their gospel-based harmonies, which sparkle next to Willie’s distinctive nasal twang.
Rosanne Cash was the obvious choice to cover Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends.” Her rich, tear-filled tone is pitch-perfect against Raphael’s mournful harmonica and Nelson’s bare-bones picking on Trigger, his famously beat-up Martin guitar. Cash should record more. She interprets a songwriter’s feelings so well.
The most surprising cut on the record comes from “Faraway Places,” a 1948 song written by Jan Whitney and Alex Kramer and made famous by Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore.
Nelson tapped Sheryl Crow for this cover, with delightful results. The pairing is genius. Crow’s fresh, California-girl naivety is the perfect counterpoint to Nelson’s whiskey-coated vocals. Nelson carves out a beautiful guitar solo during the break, too. This cut is a refreshing combination that hasn’t grown old, even after several dozen listenings. It’s what we would have called “dreamy” back in the day.
Wynonna and Nelson pick up the pace “Bloody Mary Morning.” Normally, Wynonna’s affected style and overdone vowels grate on my last nerve, but they’re spot on here, as are some blazing guitar licks by Bobby Terry and a driving tempo laid down by drummer Lonnie Wilson. It’s kinda like the hammering in your head the morning after a Whiskey River evening.
“Always On My Mind” gets lovely treatment from American Idol/country/“Sound of Music” star Carrie Underwood. While I appreciate Underwood’s impressive vocal prowess, she needs a bit more seasoning to make this one work.
On the other hand, Loretta Lynn, Nelson’s only true contemporary, has lived enough heartache to deliver Merle Haggard’s “Somewhere Between.” Mike Johnson’s sweet steel and Raphael’s otherworldly harmonica are the epitome of how country heartbreaks should sound.
“No Mas Amor,” written by Keith Gattis and Sammy Barrett, takes us South of the Border. Alison Krauss, known mostly as the champion of bluegrass, shines as a sad senorita longing for her lost love. Steve Herrman’s trumpet adds the right Latin flavor.
The rich, clear alto of Melodie Cannon, Buddy’s daughter, fits perfectly with Nelson’s husky baritone on “Back to Earth.” The girl can sing harmony, that’s for sure. Nelson’s solo, with the way he bends the strings, gently cradles “all the hearts that have settled back to earth.”
Mavis Staples brings church to Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” When Miss Mavis opens her mouth, it’s time to pay attention. She puts on one of the best live shows ever and Nelson seems to be happy to step aside and let her have the entire spotlight.
Norah Jones joins Nelson for one of his most moving tunes, “Walkin’.” The song isn’t as popular as “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Life” or “On The Road Again,” but maybe it will get some new fans. The song is short, but the lyrics are powerful.
After carefully considering the whole situation
I stand with my back to the wall
Walkin' is better than runnin' away
and crawlin' ain't no good at all.
And if guilt is the question truth is the answer I've been lyin' to me all along
There ain't nothin' worth savin'
except one another
And before you wake up, I’ll be gone.
Jim “Moose” Brown’s B-3 organ and Raphael’s harmonica give this arrangement with a real 1960s feel. Jones adds a bit of jazz with a turn on the piano. It’s the perfect update of a classic.
Nelson and Shelby Lynne give Vaughn Horton’s “Till The End of the World” a Texas swing tempo that will leave you tapping your toes and wishing for a cornmeal-covered dance floor.
Nelson lives part-time in the Hawaiian Islands, so it’s no surprise that he’s discovered Maui-based Lily Meola. The youngster gives a soulful interpretation to Nelson’s “Will You Remember Mine.” She’s one to watch.
Nelson picked Emmylou Harris to help him cover Bruce Springsteen’s “Dry Lightning.” These two could sing the phone book and make it sound good.
Paula Nelson joins her dad for a cover of John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” She got her father’s vocal genes, for sure – in the best way imaginable.
“Makin’ Believe” with Brandi Carlile and “After the Fire is Gone” with Tina Rose round out the record.
Hopefully, Nelson will continue to make music for years to come. He’ll have to go a long way, however, to top “For All The Girls.” It will make the perfect stocking stuffer for all the music lovers on your holiday shopping list.
Click here to watch a video of “Faraway Places.” Notice the joy on Sheryl Crow’s face - and I think that’s Norah Jones on the piano.
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