To Willie (Dead Oceans)

In 1975, Willie Nelson recorded a series of covers called To Lefty from Willie as a tribute to his musical hero, Lefty Frizzell. Despite Nelson's efforts, Frizzell remains one of the more underappreciated country musicians, but Nelson's intent was essentially to say “thank you” — from one Texan singer to another. It's in this spirit that Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, recorded a Nelson covers album, the warm and airy To Willie.

The difference between To Lefty and To Willie is that Frizzell's legacy needed bolstering, whereas Nelson's mug could one day very well appear on U.S. currency. To Willie isn't an attempt to rescue Nelson from obscurity. It is, however, an attempt to rescue some of his finest songs, which have been inadvertently buried by his iconic status and mountainous back catalog, the latter of which grows by at least three new albums per year.

Houck mostly sticks to Nelson's sparse Western numbers, like “It's Not Supposed to Be That Way” and “Too Sick to Pray.” He uses his cracked, lilting voice to convey weariness, loneliness, and exhaustion — aspects of the Red-Headed Stranger the public often bypasses in favor of the grinning On-the-Road-Again Willie. Fittingly, the Phosphorescent band plays the few upbeat numbers (“I Gotta Get Drunk,” “Pick Up the Tempo”) as if they were swimming through a hangover, which gives the tunes the woozy, sunbaked tone they deserve. But the bleaker numbers are the most successful, especially when Houck employs Nelson's riveting between-verse pauses. On a song like “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight” Nelson's pauses lent a hair-tingling emotional gravity. When Houck pauses in the same place, it's an acknowledgement — a reminder of the gaping void Nelson will leave behind when he's gone.

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