Roots Watch: Things New (Oh, and Also Good) from Seasoned Stars

Barry Mazor | June 25th, 2014

willie nelson band of brothersIt’s easy, with the perpetual slow-trickle arrival of new country songs, singles and stars, to become fixated on the brand new and of-the-moment—as some publications, writers and fans do. Yet some level of recognizable continuity has been a basic element of the music from its beginnings. In country music, themes and sounds and performers are allowed to hang in there awhile; it’s expected, and veteran artists can still be given their due—and that’s great, as far as I’m concerned.  (I write about the music’s history about as much as its present, so this will surprise exactly no one.) In my experience, though, the downside there is that beloved country and roots music veterans get free passes; discussion of every album or live show becomes an opportunity for fans (and reviewers) to remind you just how much they’ve valued the performer’s past, without much focus on the state of the art of the artist right now. It’s understandable, and I’ve done it myself; we love what we love—but not, I think, ultimately very respectful of those same artists as active forces, and certainly unhelpful singling out those artists’ good efforts.

This month, I’m happy to say, I can point you towards a few of those, reaching us at the same time. Willie Nelson has been, for all his famed relaxed qualities, so prolific that the occasional standout releases (the Cindy Walker salute and swinging Willie and the Wheel recordings with Ray Benson and band, for examples) seem to roll by in the public consciousness barely more than his offhand lesser efforts. He’s reached that rare “now he can do whatever he pleases, and does” stage of his career where there’s a jazz record with Wynton Marsalis here, a gospel collection with sister Bobbie there, a collection of Stardust-style American songbook pop over there—admirable adventurousness, but also sleight-of-hand distraction from the fact that a Hall of Famer at least as much honored for his songwriting as his instrumental prowess, unique vocalizing and musical leadership, mostly performs songs live that he wrote 40 to 50 years ago.  Re-teamed with producer Buddy Cannon, he’s got more new Willie Nelson songs (co-writes with Buddy) on the new Band of Brothers album than he’s had on a record in nearly 20 years—and, folks, they’re up to snuff, speaking the hard country language about as well as anybody has, and presented in modern but unfussy, straightforward style. Focusing on the life and times of Music Row songwriters and music makers as a theme (they’re the brothers he means).  “When I need a song, I go back where I belong,” he tells us in the new “Guitar in the Corner.”  For other songwriters he turns to some of the best other ones around—Bill Anderson, Shawn Camp, Billy Joe Shaver and Gary Nicholson among them.

The Shaver-Nicholson songs “The Git Go” and “Hard to Be an Outlaw” also appear on the oncoming Billy Joe Shaver CD, Long in the Tooth, in Billy Joe’s own hands, the latter as a duet with Willie. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a new Shaver collection, and this one shows that the man’s touch for saying morally complex, deep things about life as lived in utterly simple, cutting ways has not diminished. The “yep; I’m older” title song comes on like a sledgehammer, not as a geriatric walker. It’s interesting that famous Texans Billie Joe and Willie both take this late opportunity to sing celebratory songs about life on Music Row, where both, in fact, were enormously successful back when they wanted to be. (A revisited, heavier and more rhythmic version of Shaver’s “Music City USA” is the closer on his record.)  The oncoming final outing by Willie and Billy Joe’s Texan-gone-Nashville buddy Cowboy Jack Clement, For Once and For All, was created not just in “do as you please “ time mode, but knowing that it would be the last of Jack’s rare and rarely less than charming recording efforts of his own; he took the opportunity to get down versions of his “Just Between You and Me,” “Miller’s Cave,” and “Just a Girl I Used to Know”,” among other brilliant bits of songwriting.  You’ll need to have it. All three of these old friends have known to their bones—and show on record—so much about phrasing and what to do with the voice you’ve got that there’s very little deterioration from age audible on the records.

The way country charts, radio and labels now work, you don’t actually have to be a senior citizen to reach the “Now I might as well record what I actually want to” stage; they’ll generally be done with you well before that.  The musical benefits for us out here in the audience are large, though I suspect it takes some adjustment for those freshly absented from the headliner hoopla to see things that way.  Case in point; watch out for Lee Ann Womack’s oncoming The Way I’m Livin’ (September 23rd on Sugar Hill) The title speaks for itself; she focuses on songs from Americana-identified writers including Adam Wright, Chris Knight, Mindy Smith, Buddy Miller, Bruce Robison—and, yes, there’s a terrific turn on Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” that I’d make a single, but nobody asks my opinion about those things; Cowboy Jack would be glad to know that the opening cut is a waltz.  Is there really any question any more that Lee Ann is the most consistently strong and increasingly influential vocalist of her generation—single charts or no singles charts?

Vince Gill and Marty Stuart have already made the “do it because you really want to” transition, and with style, grace and impact, not just in their broad choice of recorded and live material, but in the like-minded younger artists they spotlight and help when they can. They both appeared on the impressive Charlie Worsham album Rubberband, and Charlie returned the salute during his recent, really quite extraordinary show at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley, with a version of the “Whiskey Ain’t Workin’” with Angaleena Presley, and a turn on Vince’s “L’il Liza Jane.” What was striking was that any record producer would have a challenge ahead in even beginning to get down what Charlie’s like live—with very credible, Allman-influenced takes on electric Freddie King blues, sudden turns towards bluegrass  (“Shuckin’ the Corn”)-and bouts of the truly unexpected, like this banjo-led turn on a song with which you may be otherwise familiar:

Marty and Vince must identify with his experienced kid who can do all that, as instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter. (His “Mississippi in July” joins a long list of excellent songs inspired by his home state.) But then, Marty’s annual Late Night Jam at the Ryman, during CMA week, remains a full-tilt country vaudeville presentation of artists from nine to ninety doing Some Kind of Country—virtually from anywhere on the twang spectrum.  Just about running away with a show that had room for both LeAnn Rimes and the Chuck Wagon Gang, though, was very young and astonishingly stage savvy EmiSunshine, from East Tennessee, who has to have reminded Marty of little Marty back at the beginning. This girl’s good to go—with an acknowledged Wanda Jackson-influenced turn on Jimmie Rodgers.  Some young ones, you see, are not just amazing and young; they can do great things with the old ones.


  1. Leeann Ward
    June 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

    The incredible chance to see Willie Nelson (with Alison Krauss & Union Station with Kacey Musgraves as their opener) in concert last week and it was a great show. He sang a fraction of his biggest hits, but also sang a couple of songs from the new album and he actually sounded most energized/engaged when he sang those songs. What a great show all around.

    I’m looking forward to the Billy Joe Shaver album.

    I really like that Charlie Wrsham album and wish that’s what current mainstream country music was sounding like.

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