Desert Island Discs — Willie Nelson, Yesterday’s Wine

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a post about country music that even country music haters can appreciate. If and when I ever get around to it, Yesterday’s Wine is absolutely going on the list. I have no idea if Willie Nelson ever performs material from the album in his concerts, but I would pay big money to watch him play it all the way through.

Willie Nelson, "Yesterday's Wine"

If this album came out today it would be labeled “alt-country,” for it bears little resemblance to the type of slick, radio-friendly music Nashville has been pumping out for decades. Yesterday’s Wine is a deeply personal record, rooted in traditional sounds. It’s warm and intimate, and suffused with a deep spirituality that always seems genuine.

Oh yeah, and it’s a concept album.

Nelson assumes the role of an “Imperfect Man” who has been sent back to earth in a song cycle covering his life from birth to death. Over the course of ten superbly written (and clearly autobiographical in large part) and performed songs he both struggles with and reaffirms his faith in God, makes peace with his place and purpose on earth, reflects on his childhood with a sense of warm nostalgia, basks in the glow of love, reminisces from the viewpoint of an older man, and finally describes his own funeral.

In less capable hands this concept could’ve turned into a ponderous album, but every second of Yesterday’s Wine is engaging and emotional. There is a real warmth in songs like “Family Bible,” which leaves you with the sort of peaceful ease you get from watching an episode of Little House on the Prairie. “It’s Not for Me to Understand,” with its overtly religious lyrics and subtle organ bed (you might miss it without headphones), has a country gospel feel to it. There is plenty of heartfelt sentiment in this music, but it never becomes mawkishness.

While Nelson has never been blessed with the greatest voice in country, his slightly nasally delivery is perfectly suited to this material. Actually, it turns out Willie is a good singer in his own right, as some delicate and nuanced phrasing on songs like “These Are Difficult Times” and “December Day” — the latter a vastly improved arrangement of a track from his 1969 album, Good Times — proves.

Nelson’s songwriting is also in peak form on this record. Whether it’s the spirituality of “In God’s Eyes” and “Family Bible” or the downright jazzy chord changes of  “Summer of Roses” and “December Day” — two of  the album’s most powerful songs — he truly sounds like an artist in full command of his gifts. And that’s to say nothing of the rollicking yet slightly acerbic title track, yet another highlight.

So like I said at the beginning, if you want to write a list of country music that even country music haters can appreciate you can start with Yesterday’s Wine. I have no idea why this album wasn’t a bigger hit in 1971. It’s not as if it didn’t have something for country fans of all stripes. Then again, maybe that was the problem. This is an album that draws from the deep well of country music conventions but never sounds beholden to them.

Yesterday’s Wine was a risky release 40 years ago, but to my ears it simply sounds musically vital and emotionally potent. Nelson called this one of his best albums, and I have to agree on that count. He may be playing the imperfect man on it, but the music is damn near perfect.

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