There’s lots to love on “God’s Problem Child,” the new Willie Nelson album due out April 28, a day before the Texas legend’s 84th birthday. But nothing tops the record’s last song, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone,” a tribute to longtime friend Merle Haggard.
A video released Thursday, one year to the day after Haggard died on his 79th birthday, weaves together black-and-white footage of Nelson recording the song at his Pedernales Recording Studio with shots from sessions Nelson and Haggard working together at Austin’s Arlyn Studios a couple of years earlier. “He left us a lifetime of songs,” Willie sings wistfully in the chorus, as Merle’s son Ben Haggard plays along on guitar.
Though Nelson co-wrote most of the tracks on his new record, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” came from veteran songwriter Gary Nicholson, who says he wrote it on the day of Haggard’s passing in 2016. It’s a perfect fit for Nelson to sing, with lines such as, “I would sing some songs he wrote, and he would sing a few of mine/The music made us brothers till the end.”
Nicholson, a native Texan and a member of the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association’s Hall of Fame, occasionally performs in Austin clubs such as the Saxon Pub. On Monday, April 10, he’ll be the special guest of the Blue Monday happy-hour show at Antone’s, billed as Whitey Johnson.
Nelson was among those who took part in Thursday night’s “Sing Me Back Home: The Music of Merle Haggard” all-star concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. Also on that bill was Rodney Crowell, who hightailed it down to Austin Friday morning in time to play a fantastic solo acoustic set featuring almost all the songs on his new “Close Ties” album for a sizable early-afternoon crowd at Waterloo Records.
Crowell also tops the bill at tonight’s Texas Heritage Songwriters Association show at the Paramount Theatre honoring the late Guy Clark and his biographer Tamara Saviano. At Waterloo, he played songs that referenced Guy and Susanna Clark, including “Nashville 1972,” which also recounts an encounter with Willie Nelson at a party when Crowell was just 22. “I played him this shitty song I wrote and then puked out in the yard,” the song goes.
Funny he should mention that. If you’re not at the Guy Clark tribute Friday night, you can tune into the CMT network at 9 p.m. for the TV debut of “Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings,” filmed in Austin at ACL Live two years ago. Among the songs Nelson sings in the show is Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again,” which Jennings recorded on his 1977 album “Ol’ Waylon.” Apparently Crowell’s songwriting improved.