With 70-some records and a lengthy career behind him, Willie Nelson can do whatever he wants. In the case of the new album Bluegrass, that means, as you might guess, turning a dozen of his songs into new bluegrass versions. The whole thing stays low-key; no one attempts to break new ground or shock long-time listeners. That doesn’t mean it’s uninspired, though, as Nelson continues to sing with astonishing skill, and his ensemble find ways to keep the show entertaining. Bluegrass won’t go down as a landmark record, but 12 remarkable songs in highly entertaining form make it consistently enjoyable listening.
Nelson starts by looking back 50 years to “Bloody Mary Morning”. The song translates easily to this genre (it didn’t have far to go), but its musical playfulness doesn’t age. Neither does the melody or wordplay of “A Good Hearted Woman”, originally a co-write with Waylon Jennings (who recorded the definitive version). Despite the instrumentation, this cut sounds a little less bluegrassy and more simply unplugged. It’s no matter; a strong performance of this track remains irresistible even after half a century.
Those two tracks highlight the strengths and (limited) weaknesses of Bluegrass. The song selection is impeccable, even if Nelson could turn up several other dozens worth revisiting. The performances are top-tier, even if they rarely reach for the energy of contemporary (or past) bluegrass. Nelson remains in fine form and has known how to deliver a line forever. In that sense, Bluegrass is about as enjoyable a record as you can find. At the same time, it’s just new versions of long-loved songs (though not all of them reach so far back). That’s not slight to the tracks, but this album feels different than Bob Dylan‘s MTV Unplugged. There’s no moment here and no attempt at one; there are just great artists doing great songs.
Given the limitations of Bluegrass, there’s nothing to complain about. We might not need another version of “On the Road Again”, especially one that hews closely to expectations, but it’s certainly not a rendition that would cause anyone to skip to the next track. The same thought applies to “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, now a bluegrass waltz? The process does bring some new life to these cuts; however, they might or might not have needed them. “Slow Down Old World” gets a nice boost, as does “Still Is Still Moving to Me”, which might surpass the original.
The album might not stun, but it deserves more than faint praise. Bluegrass feels like comfort food tastes, not because it’s familiar or steady but because its nature pleases instantly. Few records this year will be as utterly playable and enjoyable, which suggests the real point of this release. Nelson has released more than an album a year this decade, a pace that’s hard to believe even if he was a third his age, and none of that material drags. Bluegrass marks a time to relax, enjoy what we have, and settle in with something nice and easy, and it’s none the worse for knowing what it is.