Music Review: Willie Nelson Takes It Back To Texas, With Notes Of Mexico, On 'THe Border'

This cover image released by Sony Music shows "The Border" by Willie Nelson. (Sony Music via AP)
This cover image released by Sony Music shows "The Border" by Willie Nelson. (Sony Music via AP)

Willie Nelson has never in his long life not wanted to be making music.

After 2023 saw him celebrate his 90th birthday with an epic two-night concert celebration at the Hollywood Bowl, get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and release two studio albums along with the usual constant touring, 2024 finds him as unretired as ever, with Friday's release of “The Border.”

It's his 152nd album, counting live collections and collaborations, according to Texas Monthly, which recently took on the titanic task of ranking them (“The Border” is No. 55).

While his last studio album, “Bluegrass,” explored the music of Kentucky, the new one — produced by longtime collaborator Buddy Cannon and released by Sony's Legacy Recordings on streaming, CD and vinyl — is firmly planted in his native Texas and its stark southern borderlands.

Inflections of Mexican music have run through almost all of Nelson's work, but he occasionally leans into it, as he did with the 1998 masterpiece “Teatro.”

He does the same — sort of — with “The Border," whose best tracks have heavy doses of the sounds of Mexico.

That includes the stark, dark, title track, written by Nelson favorite Rodney Crowell with Allen Shamblin and sung from the perspective of a Border Patrol agent. It begins like a Western with a standoff between the law and the cartels.

“There’s a price on the head of every Border Patrol," Nelson sings.

But then comes a shift, when the agent despairs for his life and his family and empathizes with the people he takes into custody.

“From the shacks and the shanties come the hungry and poor," he sings, "some to drown at the crossing some to suffer no more.”

Nelson delivers the lines with a darkly direct rasp reminiscent of the final recordings of his Highwaymen bandmate Johnny Cash.

Elsewhere he employs the jazz-inspired vocals, developed decades ago, that have served him so well in his elder years, like a pitcher who has lost his fastball but can still get guys out with change-ups and curves.

He throws jazzy spitballs through “What If I’m Out of My Mind," a Western swing tune in the style of Texas' Bob Wills, written by Nelson and Cannon. The duo wrote about half the songs on the album, and they're generally the strongest.

A standout is “Kiss Me When You're Through,” a driving-into-the-sunset tune marked by Nelson's Latin-influenced guitar and the harmonica of Mickey Raphael, the only surviving member of the Family Band that backed Nelson for decades.

There's not a bad song in the bunch. If there's fault to be found with “The Border,” it's that the stark desert tone established in the beginning isn't sustained, and at times it swerves from bluesy rockers to country shuffles that are downright breezy.

In one of its more esoteric tracks, “Hank's Guitar,” written by Cannon and Bobby Tomberlin, Nelson sings from the first-person perspective of Hank Williams Sr.'s titular instrument.

“He held me close against his chest and he wrote 'Your Cheatin' Heart," Nelson sings. In the end the guitar gets packed into the blue Cadillac in which Williams died at age 27.

It's a reminder of how lucky we've been to have had Nelson — arguably second only to Williams in country music greatness — for so much longer.