If anyone could breathe life into the duet format, it's Willie Nelson — gather interesting material, round up old reprobates and a young turk or two, and don't forget to call Sheryl Crow. Nelson's laconic phrasing and perfectly timed guitar licks have always sounded up-to-the-minute, which means he has no problem covering contemporary songs. So it's to Nelson's credit that his new full-length, Heroes, marks not only the singer's move back to Columbia Records, but his continued ability to combine the old and the new in ways that are both new and old. Crow does fine, as do Nelson's children, Lukas and Micah, while veteran Nashville producer Buddy Cannon gives Nelson breathing room to interpret Wayne Carson, Coldplay and Nelson himself. Heroes goes straight down the middle of the road, but displays Nelson's genius for interpretation.
Singing with Merle Haggard on the first Heroes track, Nelson finds every crack and crease in Wayne Carson's "A Horse Called Music." Being a traditionalist, Nelson sings the next tune with Kris Kristofferson and Snoop Dogg, and while Nelson and Cannon's "Roll Me up and Smoke Me When I Die" is a good novelty song, it's Nelson's blithe vocal that you'll remember.
You sense throughout Heroes that Nelson and Cannon are using the guest vocalists — who include Ray Price and Jamey Johnson — in a way that has freed up Willie to do some of his subtlest work. Nelson and Cannon's "Come on Back Jesus" inspires the singer to an assured, good-humored performance: Here, at last, is a country song that mentions both Jesus and John Wayne, and gives both men their due as peacemakers.
Elsewhere, Nelson does a version of Pearl Jam's "Just Breathe" that features Mickey Raphael's harmonica and an insistent acoustic-guitar figure. Sententious pop at its most compelling, "Just Breathe" displays Nelson's genius for the unlikely cover version. "Under everything, you're just another human being, uh huh," Lukas sings, while Willie adds, "Yeah, I don't want to hurt her / There's so much in this world to make me believe."
Heroes does ramble a bit — at 58 minutes, it would have made a nice double album for Columbia or RCA in 1969 — but Nelson knows how to choose material. Here is a man who covers "My Window Faces the South," a 1930s tune that Willie did in 1966 on his Country Favorites — Willie Nelson Style album, alongside Coldplay's "The Scientist" and Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's "Come on up to the House."
And the thing is, Nelson does as well with Waits and Coldplay as he does with Fred Rose's "Home in San Antone." In Nelson's world, Western swing meets wistful meditations on time and memory that may or may not be schlock, and old-time, gas-guzzling country workouts such as "Home in San Antone" give way to the biodiesel-fueled folk-rock of the ruminative Heroes track "No Place To Fly."
Still, Heroes is a bit of a crowd-pleaser, and while Lukas Nelson is a good singer, there are moments on the record when he sounds a bit like a slightly less penetrating Willie. Price swings on "This Cold War With You," and Jamey Johnson acquits himself honorably, as do Snoop, Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver. Nelson was putting his mark on American song when he was a clean-shaven country singer appearing on Ernest Tubb's 1960s television show. Even when he's singing Coldplay or making room on the golf cart for Sheryl Crow, Willie swings like a man who has never forgotten about Ernest Tubb, and that's heroic.