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Open Air Currents is a look at the new music we're discovering together on Open Air, JPR's house blend of eclectic contemporary music. Listen weekdays 9am-3pm on JPR's Rhythm & News Service.

Open Air Currents: Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder & Taj Mahal

This week on Open Air: new music from living legends. Hear the latest from Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and a tribute to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee by Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

Willie Nelson – A Beautiful Time

Willie Nelson released his 72nd solo album on his 89th birthday last week. A Beautiful Time, produced by award-winner Buddy Cannon, includes five new Nelson/Cannon tunes, a new Chris Stapleton/Rodney Crowell song, a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song, and The Beatles classic With A Little Help From My Friends. Since his 2018 song Last Man Standing, Nelson has lamented the loss of friends and fellow musicians with dark humor that never gets in the way of real sentiment. That theme continues on the new release with songs like A Beautiful Time, and I Don’t Go To Funerals. Willie’s signature thin voice remains full of passion and honesty, and his relationship with Trigger, the road-worn Martin N-20 nylon string guitar he’s played since 1969, has only deepened. While his older hands may not navigate the fretboard as nimbly as they did in his younger years, Nelson’s fluency as a player, and human being, brings him to the right note every time. A few years ago, Nelson responded to an internet hoax about his death with the song Still Not Dead. A Beautiful Time is an exclamation point on that thought.

Bonnie Raitt – Just Like That…

Another legendary musician who has maintained consistent relevance for decades - Bonnit Raitt - is out with a new release, Just Like That.... Raitt won a lifetime achievement Grammy award earlier this year for a career, which given the legitimacy of her new release, is far from over.  Just Like That…, released on her own label, Redwing, was recorded last year in northern California. There is energy and tension in these new tunes born of a longing to create that has been a central challenge for artists during the last few years. Always the empath, Raitt acknowledges that while it was hard for her band to be grounded from touring and performing, it was the crewmembers who would really suffer due to lost work. She continued to pay them during that time saying, “I can’t think of a better use of my income than to spread it around to the people who helped get me here." The empathy is present in her songs as well. The title track, Just Like That…, was inspired by something she read about 2 families who were brought together by tragedy and an organ transplant. Down The Hall came from a story about a hospice program in a prison. She takes on recovery and the ongoing battle of maintaining sobriety on the funky/jazzy track Waiting For You To Blow. Despite the heavy subject, it is a lighter look at everyone’s struggle to fight their demons and be their best selves. Though not lacking the guitar work she’s been known for throughout her career, it is her voice and songwriting taking center stage on an album showcasing the maturity and professionalism of someone who’s been around the block at least once telling you something you need to know.

Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal – Get On Board

In 1965, Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal first recorded together as The Rising Sons on an album that wasn’t released until 1992. This makes Get On Board their first full-length recording in over 50 years. They were both turned onto Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s Piedmont blues style as teenagers, citing the bluesmen’s ability to put so much feeling into just a couple of instruments and voices. Get On Board is their tribute to Sonny and Brownie. Ry Cooder’s son Joachim recorded the album at his house and contributed drums and bass to the duo’s sessions featuring guitar, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and piano. True to the source material, these stripped down blues tunes rely on live studio recordings with very little overdubbing. Though steeped in tradition, they have a rougher edge than the originals. Cooder and Mahal, since being inspired as young men by this music, have had several decades to hone their own styles and have become legends themselves. Their spin on these songs sounds as much like they are building on a great American music tradition as paying their respect.

We’re also debuting new music from Southern Oregon singer/songwriter Bekkah McAlvage, an album of Bob Dylan covers by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the latest from Trombone Shorty, an emerging legend and one of the stewards of the New Orleans sound.

Open Air is on JPR's Rhythm and News Service Monday through Friday 9am-3pm.

Dave Jackson curates the music on JPR's Rhythm and News Service, manages music staff and hosts Open Air, JPR's hand-picked house blend of music. He loves discovering great new music and sharing it.