Album Review: Willie Nelson – Country Music

Juli Thanki | May 28th, 2010

willie-nelson-country-musicWillie Nelson releases albums like most people change their underpants. For the most part, that’s a good thing. He’s had some missteps along the way, but his recent offerings (Willie and the Wheel, American Classic, and Two Men with the Blues) rank as some of the best work in his long and storied career.

Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Country Music is just that: a collection of classic country songs without any frills, even in the album’s title. 15 of country’s best songs, sung by Willie Nelson’s instantly recognizable voice and released by Rounder Records? Theoretically, this combination sounds like the perfect storm of country music excellence. Is it? Well, no–but it’s pretty dang good.

Joining Nelson are some top-notch musicians, including Ronnie McCoury, Buddy Miller, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, Shad Cobb, longtime bandmember Mickey Raphael and banjoist Riley Baugus (you’ve heard his work on the Cold Mountain soundtrack as well as the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which was also produced by Burnett). If that’s not enough, Jim Lauderdale contributes harmony vocals. Despite that fairly lengthy roster, the arrangements found on the album are rather understated, and beautifully so.

There’s one Willie Nelson original to be found on the record. “Man with the Blues” seamlessly fits among timeless tunes by Merle Travis, Hank Williams, and other songwriting luminaries. If Ray Price or Faron Young would have recorded it half a century ago, chances are it’d still be on jukeboxes, because it’s pretty hard to beat tear-in-beer lyrics like “If you need some advice in being lonely/If you need a little help in feeling blue/If you need some advice on how to cry all night/Come to me, I’m the man with the blues.”

Once or twice it feels a little bit like Nelson’s phoning it in. He sings traditional gospel tune “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” with little emotion, although the song is worth listening to if only for Baugus’ haunting oldtime banjo and harmonies from Buddy Miller. Satan probably heard it and, unworried, went right back to eating KFC Double Downs and writing scripts for Two and a Half Men. Likewise, “Dark as a Dungeon” lacks the foreboding delivery that made other recordings of the song–most recently Kathy Mattea’s stunning version on Coal–so great.

But when Nelson’s on point–which he is for the majority of the record–the results are sublime. His version of 1940s hit “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” made famous by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters (followed by Al Dexter), is sung like a man who’s been on the wrong side of his woman before (too bad there’s no song called “Broomstick Wieldin’ Mama:” Willie would have that one sewn up, so to speak).

“Seaman’s Blues” sticks close to Tubb’s 1948 original, which is part of what makes it such an enjoyable listen. The song–about a homesick sailor on a tanker–just wouldn’t be as convincing coming from some smooth-voiced singer. Tubb–and now Nelson–sound like old salts stuck in the middle of the ocean with nothing to do but “dream of yesterday.”

A cover of “Satisfied Mind” is perhaps the album’s shining moment: warm and weathered, with Raphael’s harmonica quietly playing in the background, listening to it is like pulling into your driveway after a long day. Sung by a man who’s more likely than not seen and lived it all, it’s four minutes of near perfection.

As Willie sings in “Man with the Blues,” he’s “the man with a hundred thousand heartaches,” and thankfully, he’s let us hear every one of them.

4 Stars

  1. Paul W Dennis
    May 28, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Agree with this review entirely – it’s mostly great with a few subpar tracks to bring the average down to four stars. Truthfully, I’ve never heard a version of “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” that I’ve liked and I think he would have done well to have selected another song in its place

    That said, this album is worth its price if only for “Pistol Packin’ Mama” and “Man With The Blues”

    Note to Willie: Volume 2 please … and soon

  2. Saving Country Music
    May 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    “Satan probably heard it and, unworried, went right back to eating KFC Double Downs and writing scripts for Two and a Half Men.”

    Good stuff.

    Good review.

  3. Rick
    May 28, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    I’ll have to check out the song samples at Amazon and see if there are any goodies worth buying here. I really like “Willie & The Wheel” and the Songs of Cindy Walker CDs, so I’m in when Willie covers great old country tunes. I just need to hear if his voice is still within a bearable range to listen to repeatedly…

  4. Julia C H
    May 28, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    This is on the “to buy” list this weekend…on the heels of Catherine Britt of course.

  5. Rick
    May 28, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Hey Julia, The 9513 doesn’t have any indigenous Australian contributing journalists covering the Aussie country music scene! Maybe you can make them a pitch to come on board. You could even conduct interviews with Aussie country artists you’d get to see in concert. Here’s your chance to get one on one with Adam Brand, Morgan Evans, and the guys from Jonah’s Road! (lol) Feel free to ignore Lee Kernaghan…

    I’m a long time fan of Kasey Chambers (and the sadly defunct Dead Ringer Band), Catherine Britt, Adam Harvey and more recently Kirsty Lee Akers and Harmony James (along with many others). I like The McClymont’s but find too many of their songs place style before substance, and especially in the lyric department.

    How about writing a review of Catherine’s new self titled album on your blog as a sample of what you have to offer?

    PS – I don’t think Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift are comparable in terms of their influence on the US mainstream country music scene. Garth appealed to an extremely wide audience demographic in terms of age, gender, and musical taste preference and started by building a large core audience of long term country music fans. Taylor Swift appeals primarily to teenage and younger girls and their soccer Moms who find Taylor a great role model for their daughters.

    Taylor appeals to the fans of Rascal Flatts style pop country but not the traditionalists, which is why she does well as a pop cross-over act on US radio. Garth created a huge new, broadened market for mainstream country music. In contrast Taylor Swift has just tapped into pop country fans, fans of Colbie Caillat and Katy Perry, and teen and tween girls who love Hannah Montana and Demi Lovato (ie the Disney Channel / Nickelodeon audience). I will admit that the new fans Taylor and Carrie Underwood have attracted to country radio have helped propel the success contemporary pop-country acts like Lady Antebellum and Darius “Hootie” Rucker.

  6. Razor X
    May 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    Great album and great review.

  7. I Am Very Cute
    May 28, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    i agree. Garth and Taylor are two different species.

    If you listen to Garth’s albums prior to Scarecrow(and even Scarecrow), you’ll hear a streak of country music. I mean this is the guy who put Chris Ledoux on the lips of mainstream country fans and he honors George Jones, Hank Williams, and all those classic country. The only crime Garth did commit on country music was that he’s musical taste is broader and he incorporated those influences in his own music creating.

    Compare Garth and Taylor and Garth almost sounds like Hank or Willie.. :-)

  8. Julia C H
    May 28, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Hi Rick,

    I absolutely agree with your statements.

    At the stage of the year (yes, six weeks ago) I was focusing on multiplatfrom technologies and audience shifts and even since then my understanding of the subject content (and that topic) has changed.

    When I was writing that my mind set was along the lines of:

    T”whe influence of Taylor at the moment is a microcosm of Garth in the 1990s – she is pushing certain audience sectors to delve a little deeper into country music and she is most notably taking advantage of the emerging media ecology.

    Garth had a much broader effect but at the moment, Taylor is the one of the most notable example of a country artist doing this beyond the US. Not just for the mainstream country music audience but for pop audiences who haven’t encountered country music before (which is very common in Australia as there is minimal crossover potential for country music here like there is in the US). Taylor Swift is the first country artist since Shania Twain or Faith Hill back in the early 2000s to gain any consistent traction on radio down here. Lady Antebellum is following suit on adult contemporary but Taylor is definitely the case study.”

    I look back on a lot of the material written on my blog and think “what was I thinking when I wrote that?” but it just shows that my understanding of the material is rapidly evolving from month to month which is the purpose of this year.

    As for doing some writing for other websites covering the Aussie scene, I would love to but I am also the first to admit that I am not even in the same universe as the writers on this site.

  9. Leeann Ward
    May 28, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Not sure what Garth or Taylor have to do with this topic, but this is a great review. I like the album a lot and have really enjoyed his output from the latter half of the decade, including his last album, American Classics. And of course, I love, love Willie and the Wheel. I have noticed a marked decline in his voice starting with American Classics though.

  10. Leeann Ward
    May 28, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    Why not discuss the contents of Julia’s blog on, oh let’s say, Julia’s blog?

  11. J.R. Journey
    May 28, 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Yes, everyone check out Julia’s blog.

    I too, agree with this review completely. ‘Satisfied Mind’ is my favorite on the album, but I’ve always been partial to that song. Reminds me of my dad and his brothers. The devil eating KFC and writing sit-com scripts is a very compelling visual as well. Good stuff.

  12. luckyoldsun
    May 29, 2010 at 1:10 am

    I didn’t actually read the review because the first sentence was just so incredibly stupid and offensive that I lost interest.
    I mean, how many new albums does Willie release in a year–two, maybe?

  13. Rick
    May 29, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Leeann, posting activity on this thread had kinda died after Julia’s first post, so when she mentioned Catherine Britt I had to investigate further! I found her blog posts far more compelling than ole Willie’s recent releases, so I ran with it. You should just be thankful I didn’t toss in any of my de rigueur Obama bashing rhetoric for a change…

    Julia, you need to adopt Taylor Swift’s dogged determination and decide you will start and keep writing album and concert reviews until they are 9513 worthy! I will follow your blog to see how things are progressing, and any tips on quality new Aussie artists with a traditional orientation (like Catherine Britt used to be) would be greatly appreciated!

  14. Steve Harvey
    May 29, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I didn’t actually read the review because the first sentence was just so incredibly stupid and offensive that I lost interest.
    Well, maybe if you’d read beyond the first sentence, you would’ve realised that it wasn’t an insult.

  15. Stormy
    May 29, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Or, you know, as far as the second sentance.

  16. luckyoldsun
    May 30, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Harvey–
    It WAS an insult–to intelligence and taste.

  17. Leeann Ward
    May 30, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Luckyoldsun,
    I can’t imagine. Maybe the opening line was an unconventional way to begin a review, but there’s just nothing offensive about it. In fact, Juli’s not the first person to say it, even in that way. Would you have been less insulted if she had said “socks” instead of “underwear”? I’m really trying to understand the problem. If it’s the “underwear” word…I dunno. If it’s that you’re arguing that he really doesn’t have a larger than average output of material, I’d advise some research on your part, since it’s common knowledge (and commonly joked about) that he does.

  18. Paul W Dennis
    May 31, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Willie is actually the only country artist who releases albums the way they were done thoughout the 1960s and much of the seventies – three or four albums per year. The old formula for the major stars was one single per album – during the 1960s the following artists albums as follows (and my list may not be complete as it misses albums on minor labels and mostly ignores reissues)

    Buck Owens – 28 albums (starting in 1961)
    Hank Thompson – 19 albums
    George Jones – 36 albums (counting reissues 66+)
    Sonny James – 17 albums (starting in 1963)
    Merle Haggard – 14 (starting in 1965)
    Dave Dudley – 15 (starting in 1964)
    Jean Shepard – 13 starting in 1961
    Kitty Wells – 27
    Johnny Cash – 25
    and Willie Nelson 11 – starting in 1962

  19. Doug Adkins
    June 4, 2010 at 7:17 am

    I’m currently doing some country shows in Europe and picked up the CD at a U.S. Military Base…

    I drove from the Netherlands to Switzerland last week and the CD played the entire way… Whether you sing all your own songs on a CD or if you sing songs from other writers, the authenticity and delivery of the vocals and music on this CD give something for an artist to shoot for! … at least something for me to shoot for :))… Great Work Willie Nelson!

Tagged In This Article

// // // // // // // // // // // // // // // //

Current Discussion

  • Deremy Jylan: I heard that Jim Lauderdale documentary is some super-duper great movie stuff. Makes Scorsese's THE LAST WALTZ look like Wiseau's …
  • Barry Mazor: I'll have to see if Dr. Green's ever read 3 Lives; it's a good book.
  • Juli Thanki: Rose is a rose is a rose is a yellow rose of Texas. I smell a terrible concept album!
  • Barry Mazor: Pigeons on the grass, alas.. Come-a kai-yai yippy, yippy ay.
  • Ken Morton, Jr.: Barry, thanks for the great sentimental look at Winchester. I will admit that he is an artist that was largely …
  • Arlene: Thanks for this article, Barry. It's not often that an artist brings another performer to tears during a guitar pull. …
  • Leeann: At any rate, I'll still look forward to his next album, because I'm a fan of his music.
  • Leeann: Yes, if he had said that, I'd be with him, but e lumped all of country music, including the Grand …
  • mrsandy: My understanding is Emmylou's concert was cancelled was because her 92-y.o. mother passed away.
  • Erik North: I would have to say that, even though I agree that JTE does generalize about country music excessively, I also …

Recently Reviewed Albums

  • paulthorntooblessed
  • duhksbeyondtheblue
  • kelleymickwee
  • sandrarhodes
  • candi staton
  • sturgillsimpsonmetamodern
  • raypricebeautyis
  • rodneycrowelltarpapersky