Willie Nelson: The Great Divide

Andrew Gilstrap

Willie Nelson

The Great Divide

Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2002-01-15

The cover of The Great Divide shows Willie Nelson holding his guitar. The guitar is impossibly time-worn. Scars and carved signatures cover its surface, and there's even a raggedy hole through the wood where decades of strumming have taken their toll. The guitar may be even more battle-scarred than Nelson himself -- no small feat.

Nelson rightfully has a reputation as a survivor, and it's great to see the recent creative resurgence that's resulted in albums like Teatro and Milk Cow Blues. While not on the level of an indisputable classic like 1975's Red Headed Stranger, Nelson's recent albums have shown him comfortably wearing the mantle of an elder statesman who has nothing to prove. He exists outside of his genre, and holds more legitimacy now than he did even in his vaunted Outlaw days.

This is especially gratifying for any of us who remember the dark days when the Internal Revenue Service was tightening the screws on Nelson for tax evasion. All of his assets seized, Nelson released and sold the wryly titled (and surprisingly satisfying) The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories? via television commercials. He finally paid off his debt, but for a while there, it wouldn't have seemed strange to see Nelson hawking for Taco Bell (oh wait, that was just last year . . . never mind). At any rate, his financial troubles behind him, Nelson's resumed his prolific recording pace -- averaging more than a record per year -- and slipping some of his best work into the mix.

In that light, The Great Divide is downright confusing. Perhaps spurred on by the runaway success of Santana's star-studded Supernatural album, Nelson collaborates with a handful of big name singers and songwriters. The results are, well, strange. It's perhaps telling that the only Nelson-penned song, "The Great Divide", is easily the disc's best cut. Lonely and windswept, flecked with border dust, it's a textbook Willie Nelson song that accepts the passage of time with bittersweet serenity. Placed along an odd track like Nelson's cover of "Time After Time" (yes, the Cyndi Lauper one), it shines even more brightly for its straightforward simplicity.

Many of the other songs sound like other people's ideas of what a Willie Nelson song sounds like. The Rob Thomas-penned "Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me") starts the record off promisingly, but Nelson's duet with Lee Ann Womack, "Mendocino County Line", falters under the weight of syrupy strings. On "Last Stand in Open Country", Kid Rock does his best Bryan Adams impression (not a good thing in this context). Nelson's duet with Sheryl Crow and Brian McKnight are passable, but don't really evoke anything. The best collaboration is easily "You Remain", which finds Nelson and Bonnie Raitt sharing lines over a simple piano melody. Ever since Raitt made John Prine's aching "Angel from Montgomery" her own, she's demonstrated that she's tailor-made for meditations on exhaustion and regret.

All told, The Great Divide isn't a bad album. Melodies from the likes of Bernie Taupin (on two songs) and Rob Thomas's pop sensibilities definitely make for a record that's a pleasant listen. Through it all, Nelson sings in wonderfully understated tones, that weathered nasal tone of his breathing life into the empty spaces. Even when his guests might overplay their hands, Nelson is a rock of consistency. However, there's something not quite right about The Great Divide, an identity that's not completely Nelson's. It feels like Nelson's just along for the ride, letting other personalities dominate. Sure, he's there -- there's no mistaking that voice, that laid-back quality -- but it feels like Nelson's letting others do the work. That's regrettable for a talent that's worked so hard just to survive.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.