Album Review: Willie Nelson – Country Music
Willie 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.
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