Vinyl Vibe: Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible”

Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.

Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.

Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not? 

Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit. 

Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:

There’s a family Bible on the table 

Each page is torn and hard to read 

But the family Bible on the table 

Will ever be my key to memories 

At the end of day when work was over 

And when the evening meal was done 

Dad would read to us from the family Bible 

And we’d count our many blessings one by one 

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages cleft for me 

Now this old world of ours is full of trouble

This old world would also better be 

If we’d find more Bibles on the tables 

And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me

He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields. 

I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.

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