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Willie Nelson

Songbird

(Lost Highway; US: 31 Oct 2006; UK: 30 Oct 2006)

Willie Nelson's America

Critics poke fun at Willie Nelson’s willingness to record with anybody. It’s probably more difficult to come up with the name of a popular musician the long-haired Texan hasn’t recorded with than it is to name one with whom he has duetted. And the results haven’t always been aesthetically rewarding, though the majority have. Country purists scoffed at this collaboration with the younger alt-country/rock musician Ryan Adams before it was even made. Adams’s fondness for feedback and electric guitar noise did not seem the appropriate fit for Nelson’s mostly acoustic stylings. Well, they were wrong. Producer Adams brings out the Lone Star septuagenarian’s rougher side, and simultaneously shows off the sheer prettiness of Nelson’s artistry.


A tendency towards schmaltziness has always been Nelson’s biggest problem. He’s a true romantic, and that has led him into some insipid song selection (and singing partners). Without going into specifics, my guess is anyone familiar with Nelson’s music can think of at least one song that makes that person cringe. There’s none of those here. Adams uses his backing band, the Cardinals, to give many of these songs an edge, and is also smart enough to employ Nelson’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, to add a lonesome sound to the album.


The song selection goes all over the musical spectrum. Adams and Nelson each wrote an original tune specifically for the record. Adams’s “Blue Hotel” harkens back to a mythical American West full of lies and fools, which thematically recalls Stephen Crane even if the loose narrative doesn’t. Neal Casal’s keyboard playing resembles that of Al Kooper on “Like a Rolling Stone”. Taken together, this pastiche of Americana fits Nelson’s iconic persona. Like the late, great Johnny Cash, Nelson serves as a visceral emblem of an imaginary past when our nation was sill pure in its infancy.


Nelson’s “Back to Earth” serves a similar purpose. He begins with just an occasional strum of the acoustic guitar and his bare voice. Adams lets the song build, with Jon Graboff’s pedal steel moaning in the background and Raphael filling in the silences with his harp solos. The old-fashioned flavor makes the new song sound as old as the lines on Nelson’s leathery face, and so out of place compared to modern country music that the tune evokes an honest contemporary credibility. Nelson performs three other self-penned tunes on the record, these from his past repertoire (“Rainy Day Blues”, “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, and “We Don’t Run”). Of these, the first one swings Bob Wills-style, the second one is truly in waltz time and speaks of bitter tears, while the third one rocks out. “Kick it off if you’re ready”, Nelson instructs the band before launching into “We Don’t Run”, and they turn the ballad into a rockabilly-style rave-up.


Adams selected a miscellany of mostly well-known songs for inclusion on the rest of the record that allow Nelson to showcase the range of his vocal talents. The old Texan sings about his young almost-bride-to-be on Gram Parsons’s “$1000 Wedding” with a harshness that implies Nelson still hasn’t forget the pain of heartbreak from all those years ago. Adams surrounds Nelson’s voice with swirling electric guitar licks, pounding percussion, and a gospel choir on Parsons’s famous ode to love lost. Nelson also takes on the frequently covered Leonard Cohen spiritual “Hallelujah”. Adams has the electric bass resonate so deep and loud at times that Nelson’s sweet yearning vocals almost gets drowned out by the reverberations. The Fleetwood Mac title track gets a ‘70s country rock treatment, which is appropriate as it’s a ‘70s-era pop song. It could almost be Joe Walsh on electric guitar, but the performance is more of an homage than mimicry. There are touches of weirdness to suggest this is a retro piece.


The strangest cover, though, is Nelson’s rendition of the hymn “Amazing Grace” as an old blues tune. The Texan warbles with an ache in his voice to a plodding rhythm for almost five minutes. Nelson’s vocals suggest he’s beyond saving, while the lyrics talk of redemption. The lead electric guitar licks teeter between a manically self-controlled monologue and a jagged line of feedback that provides a wicked soundtrack to the story of a person who seems compelled to confess his sins, but doesn’t believe there is any self-serving purpose to his actions. He’s doomed to hell. This is what the man blinded by sin sees at the end, which perversely is a type of grace. One gets to know God exists only when it’s too late for salvation.


Nelson may be old, but hopefully he has plenty of music in him before he meets his maker. In the meantime, this record and other recent releases like You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker demonstrate that he is still capable of putting out top notch discs. Adams should be commended for doing a fine job of showing off Nelson’s considerable talents on a diverse collection of songs and styles.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


Tagged as: willie nelson
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