Willie Nelson: Songbird

My guess is that anyone familiar with Nelson's music can think of at least one song that makes that person cringe. There's none of those here.

Willie Nelson


Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2006-10-31
UK Release Date: 2006-10-30

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

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

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