NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Like Old Man River, Willie Nelson Keeps Rolling Along

Kenny Chesney Co-Produces Moment of Forever

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Willie Nelson continues to amaze and to impress. At age 74 (he turns 75 in April), when most of his contemporaries are long since retired or providing daisy fodder, he maintains a touring regimen that would exhaust much younger performers. His singing voice remains a remarkable instrument, one which forever will be a country music treasure. Some voices were meant to never wear out.

Nelson has remained a relevant songwriter and artist for five decades. He is one of only six country artists to chart a Billboard Top 40 country hit in five different decades (the others are Hank Thompson, Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Hank Williams Jr.). And he still makes good records.

His latest album, Moment of Forever, (due Jan. 29) was produced by veteran Nashville studio hand Buddy Cannon and fledgling producer Kenny Chesney, who was born the year that Nelson charted his fifth album in Billboard (1968). Chesney and Cannon together amount to a pretty fair production team on this CD. The production is crisp and clean. To my mind, though, Nelson’s voice is always best served by as little production as is absolutely necessary to showcase his intricate phrasing and his delicate guitar work.

One reason for Nelson’s artistic longevity is that he quit listening to music executives when he left Nashville for Texas in the early ’70s. Well, I don’t mean he quit listening to them completely. He just quit taking orders from them. He has prospered from good working relationships with executives and producers, going back to his superb recorded work with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler in the early ’70s.

Nelson also remains a good, often great, songwriter. His three compositions on Moment of Forever are not, to my ear, Nelson classics, but they would be major accomplishments for many other songwriters. Especially noteworthy is “Over You Again,” which Nelson wrote with his sons Micah and Lukas.

His ear for good country songs by other writers remains pretty consistent here. Big Kenny’s “The Bob Song” is a goofy, amiable, shaggy-dog story about a pirate whose mantra is, “You swing from your tree, and I’ll swing from mine.” A sentiment that seems perfectly suited to the eccentric Nelson. Randy Newman’s “Louisiana” remains a classic. Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” is the album’s initial single and video, in which Nelson portrays priest, hearse driver, gravedigger and corpse. Paul Craft’s “Keep Me From Blowing Away” is a lyrical high point and sounds as if it were written specifically for Nelson, although it was recorded by Linda Ronstadt on her 1974 album Heart Like a Wheel, as well as by many other artists.

Nelson duets with Chesney on the jaunty Guy Clark-Gary Nicolson-Lee Roy Parnell song, “Worry B Gone.” Cannon’s composition, “When I was Young and Grandma Wasn’t Old,” is a warm remembrance, sung equally warmly. Nelson’s own “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore” is fun, but it’s even more fun when it comes around on a hidden track.

The standout song is clearly the title cut, which Kris Kristofferson wrote (with Danny Timms) and recorded in 1995. Nelson’s deceptively gentle vocal renders the song an anthemic quality that lingers in the mind.

The album concludes with an almost eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s gospel number “Gotta Serve Somebody” from his first album after his Christian conversion. So, Moment of Forever is a decided grab bag of influences and styles. Which is a perfect description of Nelson’s own life and work. If there’s a more meaningful, more lasting example of country music over the past decades than Nelson — past, present and future — I can’t think of one right now.