Sing One With Willie is a feature where I discuss two Willie Nelson duets with every edition: one from an objective viewpoint to explain the backstory, and another from a critical perspective to offer personal thoughts and commentary on the music itself.
The featured single: “Mendocino County Line” (w/ Lee Ann Womack) (2002)
As country music scrambled to recover after the fallout of the Urban Cowboy boom period and, later, experienced another, much different boom period that swept the early-to-mid ‘90s, if you’ve ever wondered how legends like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Waylon Jennings found themselves with less and less hits – to the point where they eventually just became non-existent – as the ‘80s progressed, it’s a simple explanation of “out with the old, in with the new” that’s worth another discussion in its own right.
Artists responded in their own fashion, naturally. Jones lamented which of the new country artists would “fill their shoes” while Cash and Lynn teamed up with unlikely producers outside of the country universe just a decade later to craft albums intended more as artistic statements than collections of radio-ready hits.
And Willie Nelson? Well, he kept on recording and touring as normal. His last chart-topper came in 1989 with “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” and would remain his final one until he collaborated with Toby Keith on “Beer For My Horses” in 2002, which we’ll explore later on in this series, for better or worse. If Nelson and his contemporaries weren’t “cool” anymore, he didn’t receive the memo.
It’s a fighting spirit that’s evident in Nelson’s current releases, especially when the work is still relatively solid. The Great Divide, released in 2002, features a plethora of excellent material. One single in particular, “Mendocino County Line,” acted as a temporary resurgence in popularity for him. A duet with Lee Ann Womack, “Mendocino County Line” is a song performed by two Texans about a faded love that burns out somewhere near California. It was a full-circle moment for Womack, who was always determined to follow in her idols’ footsteps. While attending Belmont University for a brief period, she interned at MCA Records, determined to one day record where George Strait did. She was a dedicated follower of his, and Nelson was another childhood icon of hers.
As for the song, the two vocalists couldn’t be more different from each other, stylistically. But both artists had power of another variety – whereas Womack sings her part with a noticeable ache and yearning, Nelson is a bit more reserved, acknowledging the good memories, but reminding us that they are, in fact, just memories.
The song became Nelson’s first top 40 hit since 1990’s “Ain’t Necessarily So,” and won the Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration.
The B-side: “You Remain” (w/ Bonnie Raitt) (2002)
In sticking with the discussion surrounding The Great Divide, let’s discuss the closing track to the album – a sparse, absolutely gorgeous piano ballad with Bonnie Raitt, where the production emphasizes each clear piano note and warmth of the lingering pedal steel, with enough atmosphere to let that hopeless feeling of despair really sink in.
And for how effectively simple it is, I’m surprised Nelson didn’t write it. It features a common theme of being unable to move from a lost love, but there’s so much convincing ache to the performance and Nelson’s plainspoken delivery to elevate it regardless. Like with “Mendocino County Line,” it’s clear that Nelson is forced to accept his current situation and move on to the best of his abilities, but it’s nearly impossible.
If anything, I would have loved a verse from Raitt to better serve the narrative and add some deeper emotional stakes to the story – show if one character is hurting as bad as the other or if they’ve moved on – especially when the song only contains two verses and an extended instrumental outro that, admittedly, overstays its welcome.