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Though he was once a key figure in the Texas outlaw-country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, he was mainstreamed long ago and became a sort of non-denominational American treasure—on his 1978 classic Stardust (Columbia), he interpreted some of America's most enduring prewar popular music, honoring Gershwin, Carmichael, and Berlin (rather than Williams, Wills, and Rodgers). In the decades since, Nelson has nonchalantly (and sometimes somnambulantly) tried on many styles and genres for size, from reggae to jazz to blues. (I bet he's got a samba album in him somewhere.) His voice is the epitome of easygoing, but his recorded output has been so erratic that you could be forgiven for imagining he's just generating product to meet some contractual obligation. At the same time, no matter what he tackles, it always sounds like Willie Nelson music.
Last year's Country Music (Rounder) might at first seem like merely another entry in the de facto series "Willie Nelson sings [genre name here]!" Except that when Nelson sings classic country, it's different—he's a country singer first and foremost, and put his mark on the genre five decades ago. The album was produced by T Bone Burnett, who enlisted a large and excellent cast of Nashville pros—including guitarist Buddy Miller, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, harmony singer Jim Lauderdale, and not a single drummer or percussionist. In recent years Burnett has developed an anachronistic production style that's both old-fashioned (he prefers a kind of lo-fi simplicity that apes early recording techniques) and postmodern (he often uses eight stringed-instrument players or even more, all picking and sawing away, giving what might have been a bouncy small-group number a kind of dirgelike torpor). The latter approach suits Nelson perfectly, allowing his soulfully blase voice to both seep into the strings and float gracefully over the shapes of each arrangement.
Burnett assembled 28 songs for the project, and Nelson himself chose the blues standard "Nobody's Fault but Mine." There are a handful of well-known classics—"I Am a Pilgrim," "Pistol Packin' Mama," "Dark as a Dungeon"—and a bunch of relatively obscure tunes recorded by the likes of Ernest Tubb, the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Ray Price, and the Blue Sky Boys. Nelson never really pushes his voice hard, but his delivery sounds more heartfelt and intimate than on most of his recent records.
As special as Country Music is, though, Nelson doesn't seem to be letting it interfere with the well-oiled machine of his live show. According to a New York Times review of a concert last summer, the only song from the album he played was the one tune he brought to the table, "Nobody's Fault but Mine." But hey, he's Willie Nelson—he can do whatever the fuck he wants.
photo: Danny Clinch
Various artists, Radioclit Presents: The Sound of Club Secousse Vol. 1 (Crammed Discs)
Buddy Collette, Man of Many Parts (Contemporary/OJC)
D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz, The King of History (Sterns)
Nina Becker, Azul (YB Music)
Nina Becker, Vermelho (YB Music)