Effectively a one-man tribute album, To Willie feels comfortable, if not slightly self-indulgent. The title refers to Willie Nelson, playing off To Lefty, from Willie, Nelson’s 1975 homage to Lefty Frizzell, and while there’s no question that Nelson deserves this kind of honor, others questions remain. Specifically, why now? And why is Phosphorescent (née Matthew Houck) the one to provide it? To Willie presents its material so faithfully that the necessity of its very existence could be called into question. The purpose of any cover that’s doggedly similar to the original is already debatable; an entire album of them feels even more dubious.
Yet To Willie never really feels completely unnecessary, instead acting as a carefully curated presentation of the more remote regions of Nelson’s back catalog. There may be something slightly arrogant in Houck’s self-appointed role of interpreter, but he does so lovingly, applying the slightest hint of individual interpretation, even if in doing so he reveals just how much his material sounds like Nelson’s. The fact that the album works may speak most to the strength of Nelson’s original material, but To Willie certainly has a creaky, good-natured charm, is light on frills, and puts a clear focus on the songwriting.
The album is so reverent that even hackneyed touches, like an artificially impromptu, potentially abrasive barroom chorus on “Pick Up the Tempo,” feel authentic. The song selection creates a mosaic that represents Nelson using his own words, with topics ranging from addiction to love, a sound varying between dissipated melancholy and mischief. These two tones converge perfectly on “I Gotta Get Drunk,” a jokingly morose ramble that turns on the line, “There’s a lot of doctors that tell me/I better start slowing down/I say there’s more old drunks than there are old doctors/So I guess we better have ourselves another round.” The lyric captures the waggish spirit that defines Nelson, and as a tribute from an obvious fan, so does the album.