Phosphorescent

In 1975, Willie Nelson recorded a tribute to his musical hero, Lefty Frizzell: the all-covers album To Lefty from Willie. Despite Nelson's efforts, Frizzell remains one of the more underappreciated country musicians, but Nelson's intent was essentially to say "thank you" from one Texan to another. In this spirit, Matthew Houck, a.k.a. Phosphorescent, recorded a covers album of his own, the warm and airy To Willie. The difference between the two tributes is that Frizzell's legacy needed boostering, whereas Nelson's mug could one day very well appear on U.S. currency. To Willie isn't an attempt to rescue Nelson from obscurity, but rather an attempt to rescue some of his finest songs, which have been inadvertently buried by his iconic status and mountainous back catalog. (The latter grows by at least three new albums per year.) Houck mostly sticks to Nelson's sparse Western numbers like "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" and "Too Sick to Pray," using his cracked, lilting voice to convey weariness, loneliness and exhaustion. Fittingly, Houck's band plays the few upbeat numbers ("I Gotta Get Drunk," "Pick Up the Tempo") as if they were swimming through a hangover, which gives the tunes the woozy, sun-baked tone they deserve. But the bleaker numbers are the most successful, especially when Houck employs Nelson's riveting between-verse pauses. On "Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight Lady," for example, Nelson's pauses lent a hair-tingling emotional gravity. When Houck pauses in the same place, it's a reminder of the gaping void Nelson will leave behind when he's gone.

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Brian J. Barr