With his gut string acoustic guitar, much-admired vocal phrasing and top-notch country back-up band, Willie Nelson has joined with legendary producer T Bone Burnett - a fellow Texan - to create Country Music. It is surprising that as a country performer who has recorded over 100 albums, he insists that this is his first bluegrass album (according to the country music website cmt.com).
Country Music combines some classic country waltz music - like "Satisfied Mind," "You Done me Wrong" and "Ocean of Diamonds" - with two-steps and boogies. The pre-war era (1939) "Pistol Packin' Mama" was originally a hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters, but Nelson makes it his own with help from Dennis Crouch's amazing acoustic bass. Nelson's soft pleading delivery is in bittersweet contrast with the lyrics.
The opening cut "Man with the Blues," written by Willie Nelson, was his first single - in 1959. Despite composing some 3,000 songs since then, the rest of this album's songs are either traditional tunes (arrangements by Nelson and T Bone Burnett), or songs written by other hands. There is a consistency and clarity to this album that hasn't always been present in Nelson's albums and some credit must go to the well-seasoned country musicians with whom he is playing. Joining Jim Lauderdale on vocal harmonies are Buddy Miller (guitar), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Riley Baugus (banjo) and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. No need for drums when you've got Dennis Crouch on bass.
At 77, Willie Nelson's voice retains that unique quality that caresses and growls at you, while molding the bars with his own finesse. Nowhere is that more engaging than on the cut "Gotta Walk Alone." For a man who has spent most of his life on the road on tour and living in his bus - leaving behind his four wives and nine children - it sums up the way he endures:
It's a long and lonesome road;
I've got to walk alone.
Don't know where. Don't even care.
I just keep walkin' on and on.
If you've never had the exhilarating experience of seeing Willie Nelson live, he is touring with this material around the world and will turn up in both Boston and Hyannis in August. And rumor has it that he is already working on a sequel to Country Music.