Texas Songbook lives up to its title, but it follows Emily Dickinson's advice and tells its truths slant. There's no “Yellow Rose of Texas,” no strident ballads of honor in defeat at the Alamo. Instead there is a collection of much smaller ballads about vastly different kinds of wins and losses. “Yes its true he fought at the Alamo...the Alamo bar and grill on the west side of Waco,” Nicholson sings on “Talking Texan,” a song in which he tries to explain the art of tall tales to his New York friends. Texas Songbook is a unique collection of legends set among the most common of people. He invokes the legendary Texas Ruby, the famously sassy cowgirl singer of the 1937's. Here she is re-imaged as mid-twenties stripper who spins the world of the befuddled hero. He offers his own version of “Lone Star Blues,” a song he wrote with Delbert McClinton. Nicholson is joined by Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson and Joe Ely on this joyfully downtrodden romp that comes across like at Texas-centric version of a Homeric travelog. His version of “Falling and Flying” suffers only slightly because it lacks the forced joviality of Jeff Bridges' Crazy Heart version. Of course no collection of Texas Country ballads would be complete without a song about the man himself, Mister Willie Nelson. “Listen to Willie” manages to seamlessly blend titles of Nelson's biggest hits into an afternoon of relaxing with his tunes. Texas Songbook does relish the time spent with its Texas legends.
The other half of the album is devoted to relationships between hard headed women and the equally prickly men who love them. While the songs do capture their own romance and emotion there are no hearts and flowers here. This is, after all, the Texas song book. Nicholson sets the tone with “Texas Weather,” a fairly trite song that applies the same “wait ten minutes” style metaphor people everywhere seem to apply to their weather. “Same Kind of Crazy” provides insight into what makes these relationships tick. “Messin' With My Woman” finds a man warning other guys before he leaves on the road, while “Woman in Texas, Woman in Tennessee” finds him laughing at a friend with the opposite predicament. “They all met up accidentally just outside of Texarcana, that's when his two families found out about another one in South Louisiana,” Nicholson moans, “When it all catches up with you, where do you think you'll be.” “She Feels Like Texas” is a Western Swing romp about a good old girl from the Lone Star State. “She smiled when she saw the Eiffel Tower, she said “that's the biggest oil rig I think I've ever seen,” he quips. Nicholson smiles down on his slightly messed up relationships with the knowledge that love may not be a joke, but it takes a powerful sense of humor to survive it.
Texas Songbooks is about the ordinary people who make up a legendary state. Nicholson has crafted a careful collection of slightly off kilter characters who could, without their quirks, be a collection of everymen. As it stands, these are generally friends of a friend, that guy a listener heard about that one time. They are familiar, but some how other, characters to be respected, but who are often the butt of a joke. Texas is like that, a state with a history and a state that carries some weight, but a state that is often written off as a joke. Nicholson gets that, and his album is not just a songbook of Texas, but also a tribute to all of the outsiders who misunderstand the people who live here.
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