Any time you talk about the music of an iconic artist, you have to consider that very specific part of their legacy that lies simply in the tone and timbre of their voice. This is true particularly with folk/country/acoustic singers, whose sounds are inevitably heavily guided by the color of their individual voices — think Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams. Think Willie Nelson.
This singular identity of Willie Nelson was hanging over my head when I first started listening to Phosphorescent’s To Willie. It was hanging over my head, I suppose, because I think part of what I love so much about listening to Willie Nelson is that it’s Willie Nelson. It’s his voice, it’s that certain twang that feels comfortable, that reminds me of watching him at the county fair on a summer night with my mom back when I was a kid. So I pressed play on this one with a little trepidation — either it just wouldn’t mean much to me, because that comforting voice was gone, or it would enter all-new territory to be and mean something completely different, because it was removed from that context of familiarity.
For those not so in the loop on this one, the album’s title and concept play on Willie Nelson’s 1975 tribute album To Lefty From Willie, which featured the music of Lefty Frizell, an influential country/honky tonk singer. For To Willie, Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck chose 11 of his favorite Willie Nelson tunes and recorded them. His way.
This record is certainly a tribute to Mr. Nelson, and it absolutely maintains the integrity of his music. But this is an entirely new experience; in part because of the absence of that familiar voice, but in equal part because of the presence of the new one. Houck’s voice seems built for these songs, and he creates on many of the tracks unbelievable textures of vocal sound that are warm, rich, enveloping. When his voice stands alone, though he may lack the twang that Nelson had, he pairs just as well with a steel slide guitar.
To speak with a little more abandon, I am in love with just about every track on this album for a coterie of reasons. I love the casual camp-fire instrumentation of “Too Sick to Pray”, and the way “Reasons to Quit” will inevitably get stuck in my head about six times a day. I love the harmonica over layered guitar counter-melodies on “I Gotta Get Drunk”, because it reminds me of early Bob Dylan. I smile at the opening chords of “Permanently Lonely”, because they seem to quote Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”. And I am enamored with the seven minutes of my life that pass between “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” and “Heartaches of a Fool.” The gentle clanging on “Can I Sleep” sounds like the somber steps of prisoners on a chain gang, and the vocal is simultaneously melancholy and inviting, no less than stunning. Follow that with the classic waltz timing of “Heartaches” and the steel slide, and I feel like I should either be dancing in a barn somewhere or drinking warm whiskey. Or maybe both.
I’ve often thought that covering someone else’s music, particularly someone with the level of fame, success and adoration as Willie Nelson, can be trickier territory than recording original music. There’s a lot to live up to, a lot of potential to mess up. My hat (ten-gallon?) is off to Phosphorescent. To Willie is a masterpiece. Consider me converted.