published: 26 /
Entertaining collection of traditional recordings from Willie Nelson, recorded with currently in-demand producer T-Bone Burnett
The in-thing for American singers of a certain age is to team up with a hip-ish, young-ish producer and release a back-to-the-roots album. A trend started by Johnny Cash's collaborations with the former hip-hop head Rick Rubin, and which resulted in the superb 'American Recordings', was continued by Neil Diamond's 'Home Before Dark'. In both cases the Rubin albums were attempts - successful attempts - to erase the years of disastrous, cheap and nasty recordings and to re-establish the artists as what they were: giants of American music.
Like Cash and Diamond, Willie Nelson too suffered from a string of second-rate albums in the dark days when he was regarded as a country-and-western dinosaur. For this return to his roots, Nelson is collaborating with T-Bone Burnett, who has form in the area, having produced 2008's sparkling 'Raising Sand', by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (like this album, on Rounder Records).
Unlike Cash, whose American albums tended to be stripped-down affairs, mixing in some surprising covers of new tracks alongside the versions of country standards, Willie Nelson's new album is more of a straight country record. That's borne out by the album's name, simply 'Country Music'. Burnett has described it as a bluegrass album, and it's certainly traditional in the sense that there's little ostentation - it's mostly made up of stringed instruments and vocals.
'Country Music' is a more conventional country music record than its pedigree would suggest, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Burnett's sprightly but relatively lean production allows Nelson's voice and the instrumentation to shine through. That distinctive voice has changed a little over the years, having lost the vibrato twang it had in Nelson's 1970s heyday and come down a tone or two as well, but it's still a pleasure to hear.
The songs are largely old tunes and country and blues standards, and while there are no huge surprises, they're not the usual, same-old-same-old to be found on the usual round-up collections of hits that other country performers seem to generate after a while.
Opening track 'Man With the Blues' is a good introduction to what's to follow - it's a bit more jaunty than one might expect, but Willie's elegiac voice offsets the jumpy strings nicely. Even though a few of the songs are set in major-key sunshine, this is certainly country music - the tracks are largely mournful and slow. In fact, the old joke about what happens if you play a country song backwards (you get your wife back, you get your car back, you get your dog back...) applies to much of this album. 'Dark as a Dungeon' and 'Satisfied Mind' are two superb but different examples. Some of the songs can be a bit cloying - such as 'Ocean of Diamonds' - but overall the quality is high.
'Country Music' isn't going to set Willie Nelson back on the main stage but it's an interesting and entertaining compilation of songs, produced with values that do justice to Willie Nelson's voice and to his stature.
Man With The Blues
Dark As A Dungeon
Gotta Walk Alone
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
My Baby's Gone
Freight Train Boogie
You Done Me Wrong
Pistol Packin' Mama
Ocean Of Diamonds
I Am A Pilgrim
House Of Gold
Nobody's Fault But Mine