Willie’s back and at his best

It Always Will Be – Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson, 71, has made records like this before, but the highpoints of It Always Will Be rank with some of his most realized, subtle and sublime work. You’d have to turn to the timeless “Always on My Mind” for a Nelson ballad as moving as this title track.

With cameos from Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, this newest studio CD is a fine offering from “The Red Headed Stranger.” “Tired,” a Toby Keith composition, is as country as they come, and Toby and Willie share the duo “Midnight Rider.” “I Didn’t Come Here (And I Ain’t Leavin’)” is a great song to get you through those rough spots. A-

The Ones We Never Knew – Holly Williams
The daughter of Bocephus and the granddaughter of Hank Williams, Holly is making her major-label debut at 23, but she’s a lot different than her musical lineage. This H. Williams is a bit more on the folk, artsy side – more Joni Mitchell than Kitty Wells.

The Ones We Never Knew is a deeply personal, deeply affecting 12-song set. Holly’s been rocking the Nashville club scene for a bit, but she takes a more serious approach and acoustical lick into this CD. “Take Me Down” and “I’d Only Break Your Heart” are great heartbreak songs, which is a “family tradition.” There are a lot of ballads on this set, so don’t play it before your rowdy friends come over. Perhaps Holly will have more musical success than her half-brother, Hank Williams III. B

Lucky Ones – Pat Green
Green broke through on the country charts with “Wave on Wave” in 2003, and now he’s positioned himself for even bigger accomplishments, as a true Texan should. Pat used to be all about how great the Lone Star State is, but now that he’s taken the whole country by storm, he’s crossed over the Red River and brought his hit ways to the entire nation.

John Mellencamp’s producer, Don Gehman, produced Green’s new disc. Green remains unafraid to do some easy, clichéd rhyming (”I’m just a fool/ No, it ain’t cool/ But I am still in love with you”). Pat’s fellow Texas singer-songwriter Radney Foster penned the title track, and Pat co-wrote “College” with Brad Paisley. An admirable follow-up to Wave on Wave. C

Greatest Hits Collection II – Brooks & Dunn
This 17-song compilation skims the commercial high points from the duo’s 1998-2004 period, and it’s truly awesome. Most of the tracks here feature Ronnie Dunn, the quintessential balladeer who also kicks butt on honky-tonk laments like “You Can’t Take the Honky Tonk Out of the Girl,” and reminiscences like “Red Dirt Road” and “How Long Gone.”

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Truckers will love Kix Brooks’ belting out of “Independent Trucker,” a marvelous ’60s-style, 18-wheeler ditty and one of three new cuts included here. One of the other new songs is the recent smash, “That’s What It’s All About.” George W. Bush’s successful 2004 campaign song, “Only in America,” is one of the mega-hits on this magazine of hits. Other tracks worth spinning include “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” and “If You See Him/If You See Her,” a duet with Reba McEntire. A+