Thirty-two years ago, Willie Nelson released To Lefty From Willie, honoring songwriter Lefty Frizzell by singing his own tunes right back at him. And now Matthew Houck, who performs with a rotating cast of musicians as Phosphorescent, pens his own love letter to the red-headed stranger.
To Willie is a collection of keenly chosen Nelson tunes culled from all corners of his long career, and Houck's weary country wail works wonders on Willie's words.
The rowdy, Waylon Jennings-written opener "Reasons to Quit," for instance, leads from hard partying into the solemn, spare "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way" a few songs later.
"These are all songs that have been with me for a long time, some of them for as long as I can remember," says Houck, who after four years as an Athens resident split in 2007 for Brooklyn. "I always knew in the back of my mind that I would record some of them, and then one day l saw Willie's album To Lefty from Willie and it sparked the idea of how to go about it."
In fact, Houck covered Nelson's "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" on his 2004 EP The Weight of Flight. "One of my very first musical memories is of being transfixed by hearing 'My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys' when I was probably 3 or 4 years old," he says.
Following up 2007's album Pride with this project has allowed Houck to take a break from his own songwriting for a while; and there was little heavy lifting involved in picking the right tunes. "As soon as I knew I was going to make the album, I knew the songs that would be on there," he says. "I didn't have to go searching for any of them — they were already there. I didn't have to sit down and learn how to play them, and I definitely didn't have to sit down and learn how to sing them."
At times brooding, joyful and roughshod, To Willie doesn't miss a step, and lays out in equal parts the vibrancy of Nelson's songs and the prescience of Houck's interpretations. "The Party's Over" naturally wraps things up, and it's about the finest tune to do so, acknowledging fun times to come while tentatively looking to the next morning.