Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Ride Me Back Home, the new album from Willie Nelson.
For the third year in a row, 86-year-old Willie Nelson, American icon, greatest songwriter of all time, has delivered another album of ruminations on aging, time passing being the only constant we all can look to, and how seeing the finish line coming at you makes you consider how you spent the race. But where 2017’s God’s Problem Child was heavy on “I lived hard, but I’m still here, damn it” tunes, and 2018’s Last Man Standing was about dealing with the quiet reality that everyone you know is dead, and how every subsequent day is a blessing, Ride Me Back Home is more mellow and ruminative, as downtrodden as the horses in the title track. A throwback to his mid-’60s work meant to be played in front of slow dancing crowds on Texas Fridays, Ride Me Back Home is a shuffling, poignant late-career triumph.
If the last few years of Willie’s recording career have a mission statement, it might as well be “One More Song To Write,” a song co-written with longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon that has Nelson saying he’s still got bridges to burn, things to learn, and hills to climb in his mind. The album’s other two new songs — “Come On Time” and “Ride Me Back Home” — tackle mortality from opposite ends; the former, in frustration at the curveballs life throws over time, and the latter in dignified resignation at knowing how you want it all to end. Like on his last two LPs, Willie treats mortality not as something to fear, or something to be sad about; it’s just the final card life has to play you, so you might as well get some tunes off about it.
The rest of the album is filled out with older collaborations with Cannon, a choice new version of a song from 1972’s tragically underrated The Words Don’t Fit The Picture (“Stay Away From Lonely Places”), and covers of songs from Billy Joel, Mac Davis and Guy Clark. Nelson and his sons Micah and Lukas (and Lukas’ band the Promise of the Real) have a blast doing a campfire singalong to Davis’ “It’s Hard To Be Humble,” and Nelson leans hard into the Vegas sway of Joel’s “Just The Way You Are.” But the best cover here is of Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes,” a song that in its selection obliquely connects to the horrific realities our country is putting immigrants through at the border with Willie’s home state. The album closes with a cover of Gene Watson’s “Maybe I Should Have Been Listening,” a song that in its original version is about a relationship closing, but which takes on poetic poignancy when Nelson sings it.
With Ride Me Back Home, Nelson has completed a trilogy of albums about the one thing we all have in common: the reality of our own mortality. Willie’s been the best chronicler of the human experience since there was a Kennedy in the White House, and these three albums feel like roadmaps for us to follow, as much as the winsome songs about lost loves and divorce and drinking too much and letting go. Willie did that, so hopefully when you’re going through that, you’re ready.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and 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 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.