Album Review: Willie Nelson’s ‘That’s Life’
A common thought you hear expressed from songwriters when they record a song written by someone else is “I picked that song because it sounded like something I had lived,” or that the song was “like something I would’ve written.” Such sentiments are surely the steam that powered country music icon Willie Nelson when he picked songs for his second Frank Sinatra tribute collection, That’s Life.
The follow up to Nelson’s 2018 Sinatra-inspired album My Way, comes only a few months after the Red Headed Stranger’s latest, excellent album of original material, 2020’s First Rose of Spring. Thanks to the boldly vulnerable, expertly translated results of That’s Life, it seems as though the only thing more reliable than Nelson’s ability to churn out one fine record after another is his undying affinity for the jazzy pages of the American Songbook.
For younger country music fans, or for the uninitiated at any age, the notion of Nelson singing Sinatra songs might sound a tad offbeat, but its anything but. Sure, Nelson has long involved himself in some head-scratching collaborations, but for the most part, Nelson has been nothing short of triumphant in terms of working with artists from outside of the country genre. And when it comes to classy pop standards or jazz-inflected efforts, Nelson is nothing if not a grizzled veteran.
Long before he recorded that initial Sinatra tribute record, the Country Music Hall of Famer recorded a killer record with famed jazz bandleader Wynton Marsalis in 2008. And of course, Stardust, the transcendent 1977 LP featuring Nelson’s favorite 20th century pop standards including his take on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” cemented Nelson as a skilled boundary-hopping recording artist a generation ago.
When viewed through not only Willie’s pop crooner filter, but with the understanding that much of his recent albums deal heavily on the meditation of his own mortality, That’s Life immediately carries more weight than a typical tribute record often will.
It’s not that Nelson has turned this into a gloomy, moody record. Many of the songs are rather playful and have been treated by Nelson and producer Buddy Cannon as such. The album opening “Nice Work if You Can Get It” is a jaunty piano-led number, while “Just In Time” is a jazzed-up, lounge-ready tune where Nelson capably hits a few higher notes than he’s attempted on his own recent records.
Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Luck Be a Lady” also fit into the jolly side of the emotional scale, Willie’s voice doesn’t quite keep up with the more up-tempo arrangements. A better vehicle for Willie’s current state of vocal abilities is the title track, where Nelson’s trademark behind-the-beat phrasing fit brilliantly with an elegant electric guitar going for a brisk walk alongside him.
On the lower, slower end of the street lies the dimly lit dive bar where the lonely piano tune “Wee Small Hours of the Morning” would be well suited. One listen to the lush orchestration of “Cottage For Sale” will bring to mind those signature black and white photos of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing into the mic at Capitol Studios with dozens of seated orchestra musicians surrounding him.
On top of blaring brass and a gently galloping piano, “You Make Me Feel So Young” offered the peek into the sunset we’ve seen in the past few Nelson records. Closing out the record, “Lonesome Road” begins as a Sinatra-style mortality tune, but beautifully veers into a flourishing gospel vibe, for an ideal Nelson-tinged coda.
At this point in his remarkable career, it would be missing the point to compare any of Nelson’s releases to other modern country efforts. The question isn’t whether or not this album is a fine record—although it is. The only question that matters now is does this album warrant a place in the collection of the Willie Nelson fan, and that answer is a rather easy yes.
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Kane Brown Previews Trad-Country Sounding New Track, ‘Whiskey Sour’
For a hit maker who often lives on the cutting edge of modern country, Kane Brown keeps turning back toward a traditional style — almost every chance he gets.
In the past few years, the next-gen superstar has scored respect for forward-thinking collaborations with artists like Marshmello, Swae Lee and Khalid and others — most recently teaming with blackbear on “Memory” and H.E.R. on “Blessed & Free.” But then again, his latest single “One Mississippi” featured a bluesy fiddle melody and a two-stepping rhythm, and it looks like he’ll keep the trad-country trend going.
Sharing a teaser sample of his next single over the holiday, Brown revealed a portion of “Whiskey Sour” that makes it seem like another classically-charged stunner. Looking casual cool in a T-shirt and cap, and standing over a speaker in his kitchen, the chart topper sang along to a tune with a pure country theme — and a timeless sound.
A heartbroken ballad with more than a hint of regret, the track begins with a swaying fiddle and warm acoustic guitar. Brown then joins in with is booming baritone dialed down in quiet despair, and lays out a love story that came oh-so close to forever, only to dissolve into never again. Writing in the post’s caption, he said it will arrive in the middle of next month, and finds him stepping into someone else’s romantic shoes.
“I love getting to sing other people’s stories!” Brown wrote. “This is my next song to release January 14th …”
Meanwhile, “Whiskey Sour” will follow “One Mississippi,” which is currently inside the Top 10 at country radio and marks a new album cycle for the star. Brown and Chris Young topped the 2021 radio charts overall, with their “Famous Friends” going down as the most-played song of the year, and we’ll share more info about Brown’s next album as it comes in. He and wife Katelyn recently celebrated the second birthday of their daughter, Kingsley, and Brown is headlining NBA stadiums on his Blessed & Free tour.
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Taylor Swift Shares New Version of Holiday Hit, ‘Christmas Tree Farm’
Taylor Swift has famously spent the last couple of years re-recording her early work, and that includes a recent re-release of Red which has set the internet (and Jake Gyllenhaal’s DMs) on fire. But her viral do-overs don’t just end with her main catalog — they also extends to her holiday classic, “Christmas Tree Farm.”
Just in time for the 2022 Christmas season to kick into overdrive, Swift has shared a new, orchestral version of the hit, recorded as an Amazon Original.
Inspired by her upbringing on a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm, the charming holiday anthem was originally written and released in 2019, featuring a buoyant melody and vivid lyrics of a little girl’s fondest wintertime memories. The new version is just as warm and cozy, but now takes on an air of timeless sophistication. It was re-recorded at the famous at Abbey Road Studios in London, with Swift being joined by a massive, 70-piece orchestra, as the superstar embodies the role of mid-century American crooner.
“This new version is amazing because it feels like it’s that warm, sort of laid-back Christmas feel of doing all your shopping and relaxing by a fire,” she says in a behind the scenes video. “It’s definitely a little bit more of that old-school Christmas song feel.”
“Christmas Tree Farm (Old Timey Version) (Amazon Original)” can now be found on Amazon’s “Merry Mix” playlist, which features all new Amazon Original songs for the season, in addition to iconic holiday classics.
In other country-related TS news, the pop superstar’s re-released Red album included a decidedly-rootsy duet with another Nashville favorite, as she teamed up with Chris Stapleton on the previously unreleased “I Bet You Think About Me.” The track was written during Swift’s still-country Red-album era, and she even filmed a star-studded video directed by Blake Lively for it.
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Blake Shelton Shares Wedding Song, ‘We Can Reach the Stars’
Plenty of couples write their own wedding vows, giving an already-touching moment even more personal meaning. But if you’re a country star like Blake Shelton, you can do better.
Shelton wrote a song for his new bride, Gwen Stefani, when the couple married in July 2021, and now “We Can Reach the Stars” has been released.
Giving fans a peek inside the couple’s love, Shelton’s wedding day present is a suitably tender and heartfelt country ballad, helping explain the connection between an avowed country boy and pop superstar. Calling their relationship part of “God’s plan,” Shelton proclaims their first kiss made them feel like kids again. With a soft Oklahoma charm and simple, classy production behind him, the superstar says his world revolves around Stefani, and that she amazes his heart.
“And I know we can reach the stars / That’s how far my love will go for you / I know we can reach the stars / You’ve already hung the moon,” he sings.
“Gwen and I decided we were going to write our own vows for the wedding, but I decided to surprise her by writing a song instead,” Shelton says of the song. “I reached out to my buddy Craig Wiseman, who is a world-class songwriter, to help me write and structure something that would stand the test of time. I’m really proud of ‘We Can Reach The Stars’ and I’m really honored to be with her. That’s why we got married in the first place. That’s why we wear rings … because we want everyone to know. I’m thrilled to share this song with the world.”
Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani were married after a few years of public dating on July 3, 2021. The couple met on the set of NBC’s The Voice, where they were both coaches and Shelton remains a fan favorite. Season 21 of the show is going on now.
“We Can Reach the Stars” is the last of 16 tracks found on his expanded Body Language Deluxe album, due December 3, and Shelton’s current single, “Come Back As A Country Boy,” is rising up through country radio’s Top 30. He’ll perform the chest-thumping track on the 55th Annual CMA Awards when they air live from Nashville November 10, at 8/7c on ABC.
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Chris Stapleton and Carlos Santana Spark ‘Joy’ on New Collab
Chris Stapleton helps spark some seriously good vibes on a new collaboration with guitar legend, Carlos Santana. He and the rock icon team up for a co-written track called “Joy,” finding an inner light in a world of darkness.
Part of Santana’s upcoming Blessings and Miracles album (out Friday, October 15), track was written by Stapleton and Santana themselves, and finds the country star lending his soulful sandpaper vocal to the project. With lyrics about casting troubles aside and embracing joy itself, Stapleton delivers a soft-touch performance that matches the feel of Santana’s warm, intricate playing, as the icon seems to caress his guitar’s fretboard. The project is all the more interesting considering both artists have a signature sound all their own, brought together here for the greater good.
“I was very intrigued to work with Chris,” Santana says, according to reporting by Taste of Country. “We talked on the phone about the COVID situation and how there’s so much fear in the world, and I said, ‘We need to create music as a healing force. We must bring hope and courage and disinfect twisted minds infected with darkness.’ That gave him the ammunition to write such incredible words. … Somewhere I said ‘flying on the wings of angels,’ so it’s a collaboration, and what an incredible song it is.”
The unique track makes Stapleton the only country artist on Santana’s Blessings and Miracles album, but it’s not so out of the ordinary for Stapleton himself, who is frequently adventurous with his genre crossing.
Chris Stapleton got his start in Nashville as a member of the bluegrass group, The SteelDrivers, and has since teamed up with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Pink and Ed Sheeran with Bruno Mars. He’s also featured on a recent tribute album to hard rock icons, Metallica, delivering his own searing-hot version of “Nothing Else Matters” for The Metallica Blacklist.
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