We've got an exclusive track premiere of "Streets of Baltimore" from Willie Nelson's new album, I Don't Know A Thing About Love, plus thoughts on a few more of the Harlan Howard songs he covers.
It’s a common move for great legacy country artists to explore the hits of yore on concept albums. Martina, Vince, Alan, and many more have done throwback records that could melt a million hearts – releases that proved more vital and important than many of the new country albums that came out around the same time.
Artists who mine the classics are paying tribute to the songwriters and players who’ve made country music what it is, but they’re also indirectly paying respects to the recording legacy of Willie Nelson. Ya see, Willie, by his very nature of constant creation and output, has elevated the art of the concept album. Others might value huge impact with releases while Willie emphasizes consistency, quality, and curation. We’ve been blessed with (often multiple) new releases every year in which our favorite Renaissance man gives musical props to collaborators and songwriting heroes.
His latest, I Don’t Know A Thing About Love, turns the Nelson treatment on songs by Harlan Howard. It hits digital platforms and stores on Friday, March 3.
Howard (pictured) was the one who first talked about country music being nothing but “three chords and the truth.” And thanks to his many contributions to the genre's iconic songbook, the greatest vocalists have been set free by his particular truths. Howard’s tunes are lovelorn, detailed, authentic to the core, and so … damn ... catchy.
C&I is lucky enough to be able to share with you a full sneak preview of one of the tracks from the new collection, Willie’s take on “Streets of Baltimore.” Listen now and read more of our thoughts on it and other songs on the new album below.
"Streets Of Baltimore"
(Written by Harlan Howard & Tompall Glaser, 1966)
It’s a taut story song about a farmer’s change of location from Tennessee to Maryland, fueled by undying adoration and consideration for his wife. Her happiness is his happiness. Willie’s delivery couldn’t be more effective. I wish I could hear this among the much-less-analog country pop on mainstream radio. But that would require that I listen to mainstream country radio. I like our C&I playlists better (shameless!).
More From I Don’t Know A Thing About Love
"The Chokin’ Kind"
(Harlan Howard, 1967) Willie’s pauses between lyrics are notable – so gloriously unforgiving. And they work here perfectly in an ultra-smart song about a suffocating kind of love.
"Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)"
(Harlan Howard & Buck Owens, 1960) We never get tired of this honky-tonk rhythm and drippy steel, supporting lyrics about a heartache too intense to keep inside. Hearing Willie sing these old songs is such a joy. They’re standards at this point, and singing them to him must be joyous and effortless. Or, at least that’s what we like to imagine.
"I Don’t Know A Thing About Love"
(Harlan Howard, 1984) I’m always struck by this particular theme in a song – that love is unpredictable and constantly surprising for absolutely everyone. It has something to do with being human, I guess. Joni Mitchell knew it. Harlan Howard knew it. Willie knows it deep in his bones – I can hear it in that voice.
"Too Many Rivers"
(Harlan Howard, 1964) Willie takes his time here, and it’s amazing. Then he gets to the couplet, “When you try to put love back together/There’s always a few little pieces that you can’t find.” Breathe, breathe, breathe …
"Beautiful Annabel Lee"
(Harlan Howard, 1964) One of the most beautiful Nelson studio vocals I’ve heard in the last few years. Part of that has to do with his slow, deliberate delivery of a simple, pure lyrical love letter. Mickey Raphael’s melancholic harmonica and Mike Johnson’s steel are almost too much to bear for a wounded soul.
Other tracks include "Busted," "Life Turned Her That Way," "She Called Me Baby," and "Tiger By The Tail."
More on some of the album’s players, which can be purchased here.
I Don’t Know A Thing About Love
Produced by Buddy Cannon
Willie Nelson – Trigger, lead vocals
Larry Paxton – bass, tic tac bass
Lonnie Wilson – drums
Bobby Terry – acoustic guitar, electric guitar
James Mitchell – electric guitar
Mike Johnson – steel guitar
Mickey Raphael – harmonica
Jim “Moose” Brown – piano, synthesizer, B3 organ, Wurlitzer
Wyatt Beard – background vocals
Melonie Cannon – background vocals
Find out more at Willie Nelson’s official site.