On his latest studio album, his upteenth of his legacy career, Willie Nelson channels the heart, soul and musicality of another icon, Ray Price. For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray PriceFor the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price jingles and jangles with the gritty honky-tonk spirit and allows Nelson to dig his voice and guitar playing into some of the best music to ever be created. But it is his own path which has taken him down the dark and dank Nashville streets to conjure up outlaw-ish and outlandish narratives about the dusty and earthy American Heartland lifestyle — he has notched an impressive string of hit records and albums as timeless as the West Virginia Hills. While his most recent collaboration, the colossal and sweeping “Forever Country,” which features 29 other fellow country music storytellers in a Shane McAnally-wrapped production, is one for the ages, it is his solo work which stands even taller.
10 Best Duets From Willie Nelson’s Long Career:
10. “Beer for My Horses,” with Toby Keith
Keith, who co-wrote the toe-tapper with Scott Emerick, had the title for years, but it wasn’t until 2002’s Unleashed disc that the song would finally find its place in time. “[The song is] about justice, but more so about the law of the Old West. It truly depicts how I feel about our justice system today,” he said of the song, which was written before the 9/11 attacks. The bouncy modern production fuses together Nelson’s earthier sensibility while tapping into Keith’s mainstream polish.
9. “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” with Rosanne Cash
Nelson’s 2013 studio album To All My Girls… boasts some of the most prolific female vocalists of all time, along with a few current mainstream staples, wrapping their signature interpreter skills around some of Nelson’s previous work, select covers and a dash of a few originals. Cash has always done right by her father but always carved out her own unique creative path and songbook. This revamped version of “Story,” written by Nelson comrade Kris Kristofferson, serves as a testament to their impassioned vocal approach and the sheer solitude and power of Kristofferson’s pen.
8. “Good Hearted Woman,” with Waylon Jennings
If we had it our way, this list would contain only Outlaw-era tunes, and this stands as one of the most iconic. Not only did it explode in country music in 1975, but it permeated every inch of pop culture and media, at the time. It was named CMA Song of the Year in ’76 and crossed over onto pop radio. The accessibility of their image, coupled with this toe-tapping story about a woman who stands by her man, is what connected them to the general public and etched their names on the tree of country music history.
7. “Faded Love,” with Ray Price
Bob Wills has huge cowboy boots to fill, but Nelson and Price manage to rediscover the yearning and hurt of the original 1957 recording (which has also famously been covered by Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley). They deconstruct and rebuild the music from the ground up, feathering out the lyrics with their own incomparable spirit. Also, Crystal Gayle’s magical background harmonies makes it all that much sweeter to behold.
6. “Mendocino County Line,” with Lee Ann Womack
A spoonful of Lee Ann Womack’s whiskey-buzzed, smooth-as-silk voice is exactly what the doctor ordered, not that Nelson’s alarming quake has ever needed a collaborator to make us feel something. Womack’s warble is an intoxicating balance to Nelson’s throatier punch. Packing on thick, unfettered emotion on an infectious hook is the kind of tune any country music loyalist dies to hear. It’s a photograph of a simpler time in history, a cut from Nelson’s 2002 album The Great Divide, and written by Matt Serletic and Bernie Taupin.
5. “Lay Me Down,” with Loretta Lynn
Weathered and torn, two veteran acts forge one of 2016’s finest recordings. Note for note, lyric for lyric, Loretta and Willie come full circle (also the name for Loretta’s accompanying studio album) and allow the intimate and sweeping arrangement to fly high. Their vocal is grounded and rich with ache, ageless wisdom, vulnerability and gritty resolve. “This life isn’t fair, it seems,” Loretta coos, resigning herself to the world’s deteriorating and rotting aftereffects.
4. “Highwayman,” as part of The Highwaymen with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings
In many regards, this is the song often-cited as the authoritative Outlaw anthem. Delivered by the movements most commanding, accomplished and riveting troubadours of the time, the smokey arrangement heaves and sighs with the remnants of soulful anguish, destiny and life’s heavy weight. Songwriter Jimmy Webb crafted the song in London and recorded it for his own 1997 record El Mirage. As he recounted in 2012, the song sat on the cutting room floor for years before The Highwaymen got their hands on it. And the rest is history.
3. “Are You Sure,” with Kacey Musgraves
The foggy timbre and countrypolitan twinkle of this song, which is included on Musgraves’ 2015 sophomore effort Pageant MaterialPageant Material, are markedly impressive. The contemporary brush-up of the song, which Nelson originally recored for his 1965 studio album Country Willie – His Own Songs, is a delightful “nugget,” as Musgraves put it, meant to be a hidden track for those making it all the way to the end of her album. It’s a golden nugget, indeed, excavated from time gone by to remind fans exactly where country music started.
2. “Pancho and Lefty” With Merle Haggard
They may be outlaws, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have respect for the law. They say art imitates life, and their rendering of this Townes Van Zandt standard walks the line between reflection and their own personal accountability. Their reserved but powerful recording is a towering example of how less is almost always more, all during their commercial peak. Simply put: their 1983 collaborative album of the same name endures as one of the most influential records in history.
1. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” with Waylon Jennings
Along with “Highwayman,” this song is one of the definitive classics of the ’70s Outlaw Movement. With the haunting steel guitar sending up a glow in the background, the track, penned by Ed and Pasty Bruce, is a sharp-shooting reflection on the rough ‘n tumble persona of cowboys (as portrayed by the bright lights of Hollywood), but also framing the oft-overlooked sensitive, tender side.