Monday, April 9, 2012

"Take It to the Limit" by Willie Nelson with Waylon Jennings (1983)

View the Premise & Ground Rules for Revisiting Vinyl.

Fun Fact: Here's a really good Willie Nelson cover of the Beatles' One after 909.  (That'll make more sense in a minute).

Filed between: Ricky Nelson and New Edition

Key Tracks:
No Love at All, We Had It All, Take It to the Limit, Blackjack County Chains

Obvious Filler and Swings-and-Misses:
Homeward Bound and Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone) are both swings-and-misses

My Overall Rating of the Tracks Separately:
Recommended Listening (3/4 stars)

Willie Nelson is The Beatles of country music - I give him credit for many of the innovations we take for granted now.

He may not have redefined country-blues songwriting in the early sixties, but he certainly reimagined it and raised the bar for everybody else with songs like Night Life, Funny How Time Slips Away and the iconic Crazy.  Those same type of sparse, unnervingly hollow tunes show up on "Take It to the Limit" with tracks like We Had It All and Why Do I Have to Choose.  The latter is classic Willie, until the saxophone kicks in.  There should never be a saxaphone in a sad cowboy song.

Like The Beatles, he had an excellent sense of, but no regard for genre boundaries.  He proved that with "Stardust" and tried to see how far he could take it in the eighties on duets with the likes of Ray Charles and Julio Iglesias.

And speaking of duets...  He did not, however, create the country duet.  Discounting family acts like The Carters and The Stanleys, that distinction goes to Porter Wagoner & Dolly Parton in my book.  But I'm pretty sure that Willie did create the "outlaw duet."  And that's way cooler and lot less obvious.  On "Take It to the Limit," No Love at All and Blackjack County Chains deliver exactly what you want to hear on such a duet.  They're boisterous and raucous and fun.  As a bonus, they don't slip into the quagmire of eighties tropes that instantly date and weigh them down like so many of Nelson's otherwise great outings.  (I'm looking at you, Pancho & Lefty.)

And most of all, same as The Beatles, Willie Nelson GETS MUSIC.  He understands it on a fundamental level.  He knows what works and how to goose that for even more.  It's not just his originals, he's also a master of interpretation.  Just look at "Stardust."  On "Take It to the Limit," he tackles three covers of songs that I really love and am uber-protective of anybody (even Willie Nelson) trying to do.  So, how does it pan out?  Well, two end up as swings-and-misses.  Of course, swings-and-misses here mean that each one is a perfectly adequate version, it's just not THE version.  Attempting Homeward Bound is a losing proposition to begin with - you're not going to catch Paul Simon.  The same is true for Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone).  David Allan Coe's monumental original vocal delivery can't be touched.  On top of that, both songs fall prey to the eighties tropes mentioned earlier.  Damned eighties tropes.  But the title track (and the track I was most ready to cringe at), works really well.  I instinctively cover my ears when I know somebody's about to cover anything off of The Eagles' Greatest Hits 1971-1975.  (You know, the one with the bird skull on the cover.)  But Willie and Waylon make it work here and work well.  They will never replace Randy Meisner, but they put out a decent alternative.  And to me, that's the key to any good cover, making it your own while respecting the original.  That's something Willie Nelson is expert at.  Even the other covers that I didn't like so much were a new, legitimate take on a great song. 

So, is it an album?  Yes.  Much like The Beatles, Willie Nelson introduced the notion of "the album" to genre mainstream with "Red Headed Stranger" (a concept album, no less!) and never let up.  "Take It to the Limit" is definitely an album.  It's credited as Willie Nelson "with" Waylon Jennings and that couldn't be more accurate.  Everything here is funneled through "The Willie Filter."  And, like I said, Willie Nelson GETS MUSIC.

Up next, we get back into classic hard rock, coated in a thick layer of filthy sweat for good measure - it's "Billion Dollar Babies" by Alice Cooper.

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