Willie Nelson

These days, WILLIE NELSON albums come in two varieties: quickies knocked out as favors to friends and those that he puts some real effort into. During Willie’s past few years of untethered label-hopping, we saw more of the former than the latter. HEROES (Legacy), however, marks his return to Sony Music, the parent company of Columbia, where he recorded from the mid-seventies until the mid-nineties. And it falls somewhere between his two extremes: it’s a focused studio effort featuring top-tier guest stars and a top-notch producer (Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon), but it’s also a favor to his son Lukas, who wrote or co-wrote three of the songs and appears on nine tracks. As a songwriter, Lukas is still a work in progress, though a promising one. As a singer, he sounds like a tinnier version of his dad. But to be fair, even the big names on hand here—Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard—come up short; none have Willie’s uncanny ability to slip into a song. Willie fully inhabits Wayne Carson’s “A Horse Called Music” (sung as a duet with Haggard); a stirring remake of Floyd Tillman’s “This Cold War With You” (with Price and Lukas); a rare new original composition, “Hero” (with Jamey Johnson and Billy Joe Shaver); and surprisingly credible covers of Tom Waits and Pearl Jam. There’s the usual helping of hokum (“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a song featuring Snoop Dogg that somehow took five people to write), but Nelson, who just turned 79, seems more committed than he has in some time.

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