I Don’t Know a Thing About Love
In some ways, it’s a little odd I Don’t Know A Thing About Love — Willie Nelson’s 10-song tribute to Harlan Howard — didn’t come earlier. Sure, for the fact that Howard is often regarded as one of the (if not the) greatest country songwriters of all time. And of course for Harlan’s famous quote that’s since been emblazoned across countless dancehalls — “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Or heck, even for the fact that Nelson’s friend and fellow “outlaw” Waylon Jennings did a Harlan Howard tribute album more than 55 years ago in 1967. That should all be reason enough to expect an album like I Don’t Know A Thing About Love.
But few people realize just how close Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard were as contemporaries. Howard was instrumental in Nelson’s early success as a songwriter. He was arguably the hottest songwriter in the country in the early 1960s when he and Nelson met at Nashville’s famed Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. Only five years Nelson’s senior, Howard found a kindred spirit in Nelson and helped him land his first publishing deal at Pamper Music. Along with Hank Cochran, Howard and Nelson’s pens formed the backbone of the Nashville sound that would go on to dominate the ’60s (and, ironically, chase Nelson back to Texas in the ’70s).
So while it’s a bit of a surprise that Willie Nelson’s tribute to Harlan Howard came this far into his career — on the eve of Nelson’s 90th birthday and the 21st anniversary of Howard’s death — it’s no surprise that Nelson’s renditions are every bit the faithful interpretations you’d expect. And no matter how many times Howards songs get reimagined, there’s still something about a Willie Nelson version that feels, well, right.
That’s not to say Nelson and longtime producer and collaborator Buddy Cannon do anything surprising on I Don’t Know A Thing About Love, which officially logs as his 73rd studio album. Recording in both Nashville and Austin and choosing 10 songs that span Howard’s career and include hits for everybody from Conway Twitty to Johnny Cash and Ray Charles, Nelson and Cannon put the focus firmly on the lyrics and melody. Nelson again sings the songs the only way he knows how, with his unmistakable warble and laid-back delivery. The band is as tight as ever, and Cannon smartly sprinkles harmonica, accordion, nylon-stringed Trigger solos and other Nelson staples throughout the journey. It feels as indiscernible from any of Willie’s catalog as any record before, which at this stage in the game is perhaps the most impressive thing of all.
The album arc is, overall, a bit downtrodden. But that’s to be expected when living in these corners of country music, where even seemingly cheery songs just begging to be municipal anthems (“Streets Of Baltimore”) take a morose turn near the end. But that’s not to say there’s anything sad about Nelson’s celebration of Howard. It feels every bit the honor you’d imagine Nelson intended it to be. And as the album closes with “Beautiful Annabel Lee,” you can’t help but imagine Nelson thinking fondly of his old friend and the idea of one day meeting again.
Cover promo photo by Pamela Springsteen