Matthew Houck graces the back cover of To Willie shirtless, smile on face, beer in hand, and waist-deep in water. It’s an interesting depiction of him, who under his Phosphorescent guise has delivered album after album of sweetly depressing music to make our gray days black and starry nights cloudy. That bearded Cheshire grin greets us with a knowing look, as if to let us know that he isn’t trying to make the bad moments worse, but to show us just how bad things can be and that there’s a possible happy ending on the other side.
It’s this positive outlook that permeates To Willie, Houck’s album-long tribute to country icon Willie Nelson. Much like the music to which he pays tribute, Houck has always given the somber a dark positivity as Nelson has for five decades with legendary drinking fodder such as “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” and “Whiskey River.” It doesn’t hurt that both Nelson and Houck are products of the South, an often neglected region that birthed the blues, R&B, bluegrass, and country. While it’s no secret Willie has both embraced and shaped those genres decades before, it’s easy to overlook the influence the South has had on Houck’s sound post-Pride.
Consider To Willie as not only tribute, but a chance for Houck to proclaim his love of the music he grew up hearing in department stores, dank basements, and car stereos. To Willie also finds him revisiting some of the territory his first breakout, Aw Come Aw Wry, mined. He doesn’t reinvent Willie’s vision so much as filter it through his own musical vision. “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” and “It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way” are given the Pride treatment, minimalizing instrumentation and dialing up the empty echoes of vocals to evoke each song’s more haunting qualities. Meanwhile, “The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)” awakens the sounds of Houck’s “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” by mixing country jangle with his emotion-riddled quiver.
Musically, To Willie may float somewhere between Aw Come Aw Wry and Pride, but the smile with which he sings each track adds a welcome dimension to the Phosphorescent catalog. Indeed, the toothy grin Houck flashes on the back of To Willie isn’t just a momentary glimpse of bliss; it’s the thread that holds the album together. Houck’s talents are prevalent in everything he plays, and his enthusiasm for Willie’s material comes through with each passing listen. As “The Party’s Over” takes us out, it's apparent that the party has just begun for Phosphorescent. And for once, Houck's somberness is replaced with something resembling happiness.
1. Reasons to Quit
2. Too Sick to Pray
4. It’s Not Supposed to Be That Way
5. Pick Up the Tempo
6. I Gotta Get Drunk
7. Can I Sleep in Your Arms
8. Heartaches of a Fool
9. Permanently Lonely
10. The Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This Morning)
11. The Party’s Over