Your move, Sturgill Simpson.
May 19, 2017 | by Matt Rice
God’s Problem Child
As a much younger beloved Texan once sang, he’s been doing this longer than you’ve been alive. Willie Nelson released his first single “No Place for Me” in 1957 at the age of 23. Since then, he hasn’t gone a decade without releasing a few excellent albums (Shotgun Willie, Me and Paul, Spirit, Willie and the Wheel, December Day) and/or singles (much of his ‘60s work, “Always on My Mind”), following the latter half of the 20th century like a drifter, figuring out his place and path as he went along. By the 2000s, his rendition of Ned Sublette’s “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” from Brokeback Mountain and the Snoop Dogg collaboration “My Medicine” proved Nelson to still be a riskier artist than most, a progressive, wise, and (most importantly, considering we’re still talking about music) adventurous country music veteran who never seems to slow down, even after 61 years in the music business and just as many studio albums to his name.
In the 2010s, he’s been busy as ever. On 2012’s uneven Heroes, another Snoop weed track “Roll Me Up” proved just as dank as “My Medicine.” In 2014, the serviceable Band of Brothers was followed by the under-recognized December Day, co-credited to Nelson’s pianist sister Bobbie, which ranks among the finest of his career. Then came the fair Django & Jimmie in 2015, comprised of duets with Nelson’s friend and fellow legend Merle Haggard, released less than a year before Haggard’s passing on his own 79th birthday.
Most impressive is the fact that those examples are just that, selections from a constant recording clip that, counting collaborations, has produced 11 studio albums in the last eight years — could Sturgill Simpson handle that? On his latest album God’s Problem Child, Nelson actually comments on the breakneck pace at which he records: “I run up and down the road and makin’ music as I go / They say my pace would kill a normal man.”
As with December Day, which peaked with a group of songs centered around dementia, Nelson thinks about his age plenty on God’s Problem Child, albeit in a less thematic way. On “Old Timer,” he sings, “Still got dreams inside your head / Someday it's a struggle just to get out of bed” (which may be relatable to young-timers as well these days). “Butterfly,” a song about the titular critter on a literal level, contains symbolism made obvious by Nelson’s delicate vocals: “Will you be flying away / The same way you flew in?” But he never seems scared or anything less than elegant about his age — he’s spent his entire public life being gracious, so why would he stop now? Nelson even finds humor in mortality on the standout “Still Not Dead,” a song about the several death hoaxes he’s lived to laugh about (largely coming from a fake news site called MSMBC.co, which wrote: “The shocking news comes just days after a recent 60 Minutes interview where Nelson was quoted as saying ‘Life is good and I have never felt better or been happier.’”)
Fake news is again on his mind on the InfoWars protest anthem “Delete and Fast Forward” (“Delete and fast-forward the news / The truth is the truth but believe what you choose”). Nelson and co-writer Buddy Cannon (who also produced) penned seven of God’s Problem Child’s 13 songs, including “Delete and Fast Forward.” The ones they didn’t write, including a title song from Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White, prove Nelson remains as marvelous an interpreter as he was when he released Stardust in 1978. Most notable is the opener “Little House on the Hill,” a jumpy contribution from Cannon’s mother Lyndel Rhodes. It’s her first-ever published song.
On an album loaded with heartfelt tunes, the closing track “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” is most touching of all, a tribute to the late Haggard that, with its Stones-y harmonica and guitar solos, may be the most straightforward rock ‘n’ roll on the record, despite not actually being one of the faster ones. “And he won't ever be gone / His songs live on,” Nelson sings, and the same could easily be said about Nelson himself. But he’s still not dead, last he checked.