Amidst the pot smoke, cornball acting and lightweight high profile collaborations, what often gets lost about Willie Nelson is what a devastating songwriter he is. This fact didn’t elude Phosphorescent (aka Matthew Houck), who’s tunneled into the richest recesses of Willie’s vast catalog to create a genuine tribute to the hard living American master.
The barroom doors swing wide on “Pick Up The Tempo” and then he splits your heart open on “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” (actually a Hank Cochran tune but famously covered by Nelson on his landmark 1975 release Red Headed Stranger). What’s immediately apparent is Houck’s facility with varied moods of emotional expression rivals Willie’s own generous reach. There’s never a moment where one sense anything but abject love for the songs he’s handling here, and he’s taken the task of courting a legend seriously, aided by the substantive, highly intuitive playing of his band: Chris Marine (drums), Scott Stapleton (piano), Jeffrey Bailey (bass), Jesse Anderson Ainslie (electric guitar), Ricky Jay Jackson (pedal steel), Dan Weber (electric guitar) and Houck (vocals, guitar, synths, etc.)
Houck injects appropriate bone weariness into “Too Sick To Pray,” capturing some of John David Souther’s early ’70s California country gospel as he sings, “I’m too sick to pray, Lord/ That’s why we ain’t talked in while/ It’s been some of those days, Lord/ Where I thought I was on my last mile.” Here and throughout, the arrangements are sensitive but not timid, hushing down when a knee is bent but hopping up just fine when the saloon floor is swaying. Each of the 11 songs on To Willie (released February 3 on Dead Oceans) sparkles, a grand tune held up to candlelight and the fading glow of dreams withheld. Houck’s handling of this material makes me think we need to put he and Nelson in a cozy studio with a one-pound sack of quality sticky-icky, a few cases of icy Red Stripe, three miles of good analog tape and some battered gear to capture whatever occurs after we lock them in.
In his own work, Houck draws water from fables and folklore, welcoming in the things that linger on the edges. Exploring a real songwriting genius’ oeuvre, he’s added a richly colored American ribbon to his voice, a small-scale echo of Aaron Copeland, which fits given Willie’s own generous sweep through U.S. musical back pages. To Willie is a conscious nod to Nelson’s fab 1975 album To Lefty From Willie, a salute to his idol Lefty Frizzell. This is the bard’s tradition at its purest and finest – craftsmen and carriers of shared stories being picked up by new boots ready to walk the next furlong. Next time I meet up with Houck I owe him a couple whiskies for taking on Willie in such a winning way. And you’ll probably be up for grabbing him a round after you hear To Willie, too.
Here’s Houck and his touring band doing Willie’s “Reasons To Quit” last October.
JamBase | Asleep In Your Arms
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