"Willie Nelson & Family," a 90-minute Home Box Office in-concert special (tomorrow at 8 p.m., stereo simulcast on WMZQ-FM) is just about enough Willie for anybody: 27 songs, practically no talk and thankfully, no scene-setting beyond some good-natured shots of golf-course clowning during Nelson's standard opening song, "Whiskey River."
Shot before a foot-stompin', hip-shakin' crowd on Nelson's home turf (he owns the Austin Opera House, where the concert was videotaped), "Family" sticks to straightforward shots of the band and to many close-ups of Nelson.
Nelson served as executive producer, which may explain the emphasis in the first 30 minutes on songs from his new album, "Tougher Than Leather." Those songs reflect Nelson's current preoccupation with reincarnation and cosmic justice, while still offering meditations on love, friendship, loyalty and death.
The introspective material was fashioned last year during Nelson's convalesence after a collapsed lung. Revitalizing the Western motif of "Red-Headed Stranger," the album that brought him to prominence in 1975, Nelson refashions once-static images and familiar myths so that they end up not only rewarding artistically, but revealing on an intellectual and emotional level. It's a metaphor for Nelson's own position in the country-music galaxy. Who else could get away with a rambunctious told-you-so song like "Just a Little Old Fashioned Karma Coming Down"?
Nelson also rekindles some familiar personal fires ("On the Road," "Always On My Mind," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground") as well as roasting some chestnuts from his interpretive period ("Stardust," "All of Me," "Georgia On My Mind"). The older pop material is a perfect showcase for Nelson's excellent band, which swings a tune with the greatest of ease.
The HBO special confirms Nelson's greatest gifts: a distinctive, surprisingly pure voice prone to understatement even as it draws out wonderful emotional nuances from seemingly mundane lyrics; and unorthodox phrasing, vocally and instrumentally, with Nelson's acoustic guitar lines curling around a melody like a flame around a log. That phrasing, full of instinctively developed melody lines and unexpected pauses and catch-ups, creates marvelous tensions in the warmth of Nelson's passionate heart-songs.