See where Willie’s new record lands in our comprehensive ranking of all 145 of his albums.
When the pandemic became an awful reality in the spring of 2020, Willie fans should have known a collection of gospel songs would be coming before long. Church music has always been Willie’s safe place, his solace. He and sister Bobbie had impossibly hard lives growing up in the Depression-era dirt fields around Abbott. Their mom split shortly after Willie’s birth, and their dad soon after that. They were raised and taught music by their paternal grandparents, but their grandfather, whom they called Daddy, died not long after giving Willie his first guitar, when Willie was six. Bobbie and Willie made it through those hard, early years by playing music together, she on the piano and he on guitar, performing on Sundays in church and evenings in their living room. It was their only real refuge from the ever-present fact of the tenuousness of life.
So of course they turned to spiritual songs when COVID hit, and the resulting album, The Willie Nelson Family, unwinds like a Sunday morning service in the tiny chapel in Luck, the world locked safely outside. Among the twelve tracks are devotional favorites Willie and Bobbie played as kids, such as “In the Garden” and Hank Williams’s “I Saw the Light,” along with old Willie compositions that may well someday show up in hymnals, such as “Kneel at the Feet of Jesus” and “Laying My Burdens Down.” Other classic Willie tunes included on The Willie Nelson Family take on entirely new meaning. When “Heaven and Hell” first appeared, on 1974’s Phases and Stages, it was a secular song about the mixed-up emotions and wounded uncertainty that accompany the end of a marriage. But here, undergirded by Bobbie’s stately touch on the keys, the song moves straight into the church. Given Willie’s wry wit, it’s easy to imagine he’s singing to a young bride and groom at a small-town wedding ceremony, advising with the voice of experience, “Sometimes it’s heaven and sometimes it’s hell / Sometimes I don’t even know.”
But there’s more in the album to focus on than the message. For one thing, Willie’s guitar playing is stellar, a welcome return to form after Trigger stayed mostly in his case for his previous album, the 2021 Sinatra tribute, That’s Life. There’s also the musical setting. Four of the songs were recorded pre-pandemic, in March 2019, during an impromptu picking party with Willie’s road band at his Pedernales studio. On those tracks—“Heaven and Hell,” “Kneel at the Feet of Jesus,” “Laying My Burdens Down,” and “Family Bible”—Willie’s longtime drummer and best friend, Paul English, plays percussion. They are among the last recordings Willie ever made with English, who died in February 2020.
The record’s eight other tracks were cut starting in April 2020, not long after the pandemic upended Willie’s fabled life on the road. Sequestered and stir-crazy, but with family luckily on hand at his ranch, he initially laid down basic tracks with sons Lukas and Micah, with other parts recorded later by Bobbie and Willie’s daughters Paula and Amy. Their ease with one another is unmistakable. Lukas suggested the family work up George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” a song Willie didn’t remember, if he’d ever heard it at all. But that didn’t end up mattering: with Lukas taking lead vocals, father and sons pulled stage mics up to their acoustic guitars—Lukas on a gut-string, Micah on a steel-string, Willie on Trigger—and found the gentle beauty in the melody that Phil Spector’s busy production had muddied in Harrison’s original. Micah sings lead on “I Thought About You, Lord,” and if you listen closely, at the end of the first chorus you can hear him beckon a ruminative solo from Trigger by whispering, “Take one, Dad.”
And then there are the harmonies in the backing vocals. Since shaking free of Nashville, Willie has seldom been accompanied by a full chorus, let alone one made up of four of his kids. Their voices blend in a way only real kin’s can—think the Everlys, the Bee Gees, and the magic of blood harmony. The family’s presence gives the album a deeper sense of grace and meaning, especially on the song “Family Bible,” where Willie’s children join him to sing “I can see us sittin’ round the table / When from the family Bible Dad would read.” The result is a powerful testament to family and faith.