For whatever reason, the clip at which Willie Nelson records reproduce breeds cynicism in some listeners, especially when those records fail to capture the organic dynamism that Nelson’s best work trades in. The responsible party, it often seems, is the producer. Over the past decade or so, Nelson has had mixed results working with celebrity producers who have tried to emphasize his kinship with either the reggae journeymen (2005’s Countryman with Don Was), the no-shirt, no-problem strain of contemporary country (2007’s Moment of Forever with Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon), or spindly, scruffy late-period Americana (2006’s Songbird with Ryan Adams). T Bone Burnett, an ultra prolific Texan just like Nelson, plays it down the middle on the new release Country Music, forgoing the neo-noir atmospherics that have colored much of his recent work in favor of a lived-in, rough-hewn sound. It’s the right move: production as under-production. Nelson hasn’t had room to breathe like this since his self-produced 1996 gem Spirit.
That’s not to say that the album is as stripped bare as Spirit or its forbearer, Red Headed Stranger. In fact, one of Country Music‘s great pleasures is hearing Nelson duck and dodge amidst the textures conjured by a top-drawer, full-bore country band, a group that includes Buddy Miller on guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on bass, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Jim Lauderdale singing harmony. While Nelson’s voice remains lean and tawny, it wears its years, which means that, more than ever, his impact as singer largely depends upon that masterfully reserved approach to phrasing, an approach utilized to full effect throughout the album.
Appropriately enough for a record so explicitly of and about country music, Country Music begins with a revision of Nelson’s first single, 1959’s “Man With the Blues.” Replacing the twin-guitar shuffle of the original with a sawing fiddle figure, the song does that uncanny thing that so much of Burnett’s recent work does. It sounds totally in-the-moment, whether that moment is 1959, 2010, or 1932. Yet for all its chronological blurriness, the album draws most heavily on the spirit of the pre-countrypolitan, pre-Outlaw sounds of country music from the first five decades of the 20th century. Throughout its 15 tracks, Country Music touches upon luminaries like Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, the Delmore Brothers, and Hank Williams. All are refracted through the prism of Nelson’s singing and the ensemble’s bunkhouse proficiency.
“My Baby’s Gone”, for instance, moves a few steps slower than the Louvin Brothers’ take on the song, a decision that draws out its mournful strains and makes it an appropriate counterpoint to the elegiac version of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” that it follows. Since Nelson’s vision of country music has always been a mixed-up, jazz-inflected idiom, the cover of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” accents all the rural turns of the Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters’ original. Similarly, in Nelson’s hands, the bouncy honky tonk of Ernest Tubb’s “Seaman’s Blues” becomes a stoic Texas blues, and “Freight Train Boogie” uses a doghouse bass and Mickey Raphael’s train-whistle harp to reimagine the song as slapback, Sun Studios rockabilly.
One virtue shared by both Burnett, the producer, and Nelson, the performer, is an unerring trust that the song itself is up to the task. Both stand amongst American music’s most incisive students of song. That expertise reveals itself in both the selection and handling of each track on Country Music. While you’ll wait in vain for Nelson’s own songs, which have gotten increasingly rare as the years go by, this is easily the new millennium’s most effective showcase of the gifts that Nelson’s reputation rests upon. It highlights the powerful irony that occasionally it takes someone like T Bone Burnett to remind us that there’s no one like Willie Nelson.