Willie Hugh Nelson didn’t get off to the greatest starts in life. He was born during the great depression in 1933 and raised by his grandparents. His mother left shortly after his birth, and his father remarried and moved away. In 1950 after graduating from high school he joined the air force but was later discharged due to back problems. He then worked as a disc jockey while trying to make his way in music. During this time he wrote some of his best known songs such as ‘Crazy’, ‘Family Bible’, ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’, ‘Hello Walls’ and ‘Pretty Paper’, which were all hits for various artists.
Along with Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser he started the ”Outlaw Movement” which changed the face of Nashville recordings with artists being responsible for their own output. In the 1980s he teamed up with Waylon again (there are many collaborations) along with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to form The Highwaymen. It really is impossible to choose who is the greatest country star of all time, but most people’s favourites appeared on that tour.
With God’s Problem Child we have Willie Nelsons first offering since his collaboration with Merle Haggard in 2015, Merle’s final album before his passing in 2016, the year that took so many greats. The fact that Willie is still alive in 2017 is an issue addressed here on God’s Problem Child and is handled with the kind of humour you’d expect from a man with his own brand of marijuana, something that really impressed Howard Marks (aka Mr Nice) when he was alive.
The album kicks off with ‘Little House on the Hill’, it emits emotion throughout the lyrics; “That little house has weathered many storms, It’s a place that feels so cozy and so warm”. I don’t mind admitting that this was the moment where I started getting a little emotional listening to this album. Nelson’s voice is still strong, rich in experience and history, it feels so cozy and so warm. It’s happy to just play away with a happy song. There’s plenty of time for melancholy on this album but your heart will fill with joy when you hear ‘Little House on the Hill’, it’s like finding that nugget of weed when the wife has gone to the in-laws for the weekend. The track was written by Lyndel Rhodes who is the mother of Buddy Cannon, the producer and songwriter who co-wrote half the songs on the album.
‘Old Timer’ and ‘True Love’ see a delivery of award winning quality, reminding you just why this singer-songwriter has stood the test of time as one of the best there’s ever been at delivering a vocal bullet straight to your soul playing the sweetest melody on your heartstrings on the way through; “And I’ll go to hell believing’/ True love, you’re still my friend. /From the start to the finish / And until the bitter end / I lived my life believin’ / True love, you’re still my friend”.
‘Delete and Fast Forward’ see’s the political side of this original gangster. Any fan of Mr Nelson knows that his brushes with authority are quite common place. In 1990 his assets were seized by the Inland Revenue, which claimed he owed $32 million. In 1992 he recorded a double album The IRS Tapes/ Who’ll Buy My Memories, the profits from this and a sale of his assets cleared the debt. He’s also been arrested several times for possession of marijuana. On one occasion in the Bahamas he was thrown in jail where his manager brought him a six-pack of beer to his cell. He was released a few hours later he fell over and was taken to the emergency room. The judge dropped all charges but told him never to return to the country again. These, and countless other stories give the song ‘Still Not Dead’ added gravitas with the song being more of a two fingers up at the establishment, or a badge of honour rather than a humours take on where he is today.
But it’s the title track, ‘God’s Problem Child’ that will get all the plastic Willie Nelson fans talking in the same way Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’ or ‘Personal Jesus’ did. There’s nothing wrong with jumping on a bandwagon, god knows we’ve all jumped on a few, but this soulful composition sounds like it goes all the way back to the Blind Boys Of Alabama. It’s the only track on the album to feature guest vocals, and it’s also believed to be the last thing Leon Russell sang on before he passed away. The track also features Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White.
God’s Problem Child is a must own album for any country music fan, or for anyone whose parents were into Willie Nelson and you were lucky enough to listen to some of his music while they were alive. There are so many stories wrapped up in every song, every lyric isn’t without meaning, every melody is a tribute to a great champion Willie is paying tribute to, It’s like a final season of a long running story that you’ve been following all your life.
The album closes with a song that’s both Heart-warming and Heart-breaking in equal measure with a pulchritudinous tribute to Willies best friend Merle Haggard. There’s more than a casual nod to some of Meale’s more famous songs within this tribute. But the real heartbreak for anyone who loves this giant of country music is that when you look back, as this album does on this rich tapestry he has woven with God’s Problem Child, you’ll see that a lot of the people he has loved, and he is a hopeless romantic, have now gone to that Grand Ole Opry in the sky. We have to thank those angels that are keeping him alive, they must believe we still need this man on earth whose legend goes way beyond his music.