Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is Willie Nelson's God's Problem Child.
In five days, and one after this album physically comes out, Willie Nelson turns 84. That’s a lot of years, man. Willie’s old enough to remember World War II first hand; he’s lived long enough to see his music issued on seven different delivery platforms (45, LP, 8-Track, Cassette, CD, MP3, Streaming Service) and to have outlived every single one of his contemporaries. Waylon, Johnny, Merle, Elvis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins; to a man they’ve passed on and left Willie as the only O.G. country star left standing. Willie himself has had some health scares the last 12 months--his manager has had to come out recently to deny reports that he was “gravely ill”--but he perseveres with God’s Problem Child, his 61st-ish studio album (depending on what you count) and first of original material since 2014.
The original title of God’s Problem Child was I’m Not Dead, a direct reference to the health scare reports, and the fact that death and aging hang over the album like spectres. There’s “Old Time,” a song that will have anyone that wakes up every morning to see their hairline receding and their paunch expanding in their feels (“Pray for mercy and a few more days” Willie sings). “Your Memory Has A Mind Of It’s Own” is maybe the only sincere country song about memory loss ever written, while “Still Not Dead” confronts waking up and surfing the web to find that the world is convinced you’re dead. The album’s emotional showstopper is “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” a song about Merle Haggard’s death. Willie and Merle were touring together when Merle fell ill and died last year, so the news hit him especially hard. Willie looks back fondly on them getting stoned together and writing songs for each other, and how they were brothers. “Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him,” Willie sings here, cementing forever that even though Willie has written some of the best love songs ever, his songs about having good times with his friends are often the most emotionally wrenching.
The song from God’s Problem Child that’s gonna get all the publicity is “Delete and Fast Forward,” a song nominally about the 2016 election, and how life would be better for all of us if we could cover our mistakes if we could just reset. But the undercard should go to “True Love,” a song about the ultimate self-prison that the search for true love can be. Or better yet, the title track, a song featuring guest verses and guitar work by Leon Russell (one of the last songs recorded before he died late last year), Tony Joe White, and Jamey Johnson. If this is the song that brings Jamey back into the mainstream country fold--his Guitar Song is a left-of-center country classic--and to take back the throne from the Stapletons and Simpsons, this song will be even more of a success.
God’s Problem Child is one of Willie’s strongest albums since his ‘70s heyday. Age has a way of defeating even our greatest heroes, but Willie should stand as an exemplar of making the most of your life while you still have it. He’s not going to go gentle into that good night, and he’s going to make vital, life-affirming work till his last breath. It’s all any of us can hope for, really.
Andrew Winistorfer is Vinyl Me, Please’s Classics and Country Director, and an editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.