If a cover song is an open letter from an artist to the originator, an entire album of covers is the equivalent of a bouquet of flowers and a shy smile. Matthew Houck, better known as the voice of Phosphorescent, has given Willie Nelson (and the rest of us) a gorgeous, shimmering gift in To Willie. It continues a chain Nelson started when he offered To Lefty from Willie, his own musical love letter to Lefty Frizzell.
Houck bypasses jukebox favorites like “Whiskey River” and “Always on My Mind” and even his eyebrow raising duet with Julio Iglesias, “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Instead, he’s channeled the braided outlaw, the guy who spent time carousing in bars, breaking hearts, and generally being the life of the party. Opener "Reasons to Quit” sets the tone with its hard truth that “the reasons to quite don’t outnumber the reasons” why. Houck’s delivery is sweet and plaintive, as if he’s shaking his head, smiling halfway as he reaches for another beer to keep the good times rolling despite the pull to settle down a bit. Which brings us to “I Gotta Get Drunk,” which contains this nugget of truth: "There’s a lot of doctors tell me/ That I’d better start slowing it down/ But there’s more old drunks than there are old doctors/ So I guess we’d better have another round.”
In resurrecting these songs in his distinctive Phosphorescent style, Houck has added a new shine to Nelson’s output. It has inspired me to go back and find the original versions, and that’s always a good thing.