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The concept of “a special Willie Nelson album” may be hard for many to get a handle on. Few musicians have been as prolific: The American musical icon has to date released 80 solo studio albums and more than two dozen collaborative sets, and has made countless guest appearances on others’ records. He has long been compulsive in the studio; he owns a couple of studios, in fact, and is entitled to use them as he sees fit.
One of three records Willie released in a 12-month period in 1995-96, Spirit is one of his very greatest—a special album in every way. But it managed to elude the attention of all but the most hardcore Nelson enthusiasts.
That’s a pity, for that beautiful, indelible, and unjustly obscure release surely deserved the success of such popular Nelson opuses as Red Headed Stranger, Stardust, and Always on My Mind; it’s as personal and as profoundly expressed as his Phases and Stages, The Troublemaker, and To Lefty From Willie, and as different from those albums as they are from one another. Spare and operating at an emotional high pitch, Spirit is a perfect blend of ardent songwriting and musical virtuosity, distinguished by the resonant interplay of a gifted and durable brother-and-sister act.
The majority of Spirit is an extended conversation between two distinctive instrumental voices. Willie’s piano-playing sister Bobbie Nelson got her start as a musician barnstorming across Texas with traveling evangelists, and her heavily chorded work on the album is straight out of church. (Appropriately, Willie and Bobbie released a duet album of gospel songs, Farther Along, earlier this year; a second collaborative effort, December Day, is due next month.)
Bobbie’s playing provides a forceful yet lyrical underpinning for Willie’s jazz-inflected work, performed on his battered Martin N-20 classical guitar “Trigger.” Seldom before or since has he played with such a depth of feeling; he moves effortlessly from border music-styled instrumentals to the swinging lilt of his principal influence, gypsy jazzman Django Reinhardt. (Longtime band mate Jody Payne’s rhythm guitar work is so laid-back it can scarcely be detected in the mix.) Guest Johnny Gimble, formerly the fiddle ace in Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys, plays Stephane Grappelli to Willie’s Django, contributing his own subdued flights of fancy on many of the tracks.
The musicians came to the off-the-cuff one-day Spirit session at Nelson’s Pedernales Studio armed with a brace of magnificent new Nelson compositions. The best of them—the ballads “She Is Gone,” “Your Memory Won’t Die in My Grave,” “I’m Not Trying to Forget You”—are powerfully affecting post mortems of an old love affair, in the grand manner of Nelson’s unforgettable 1974 song cycle about divorce, Phases and Stages. Even the album’s songs of romantic rebirth—“I’m Waiting Forever,” “I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here in Your Eyes,” “It’s a Dream Come True”—are steeped in melancholy. And two highly personalized hymns, “Too Sick to Pray” and “I Thought About You, Lord,” are as darkly pensive as the rest. Nelson sings them all with the assurance and straightforward honesty that have always characterized his work.
Willie Nelson was making adventurous music in the late ’90s, but Spirit bears comparison to such highly lauded contemporaneous albums as Johnny Cash’s celebrated American sessions with producer Rick Rubin.
Yes, it really is that special.