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Willie Nelson - Countryman Print E-mail
Sunday, 12 June 2005

Willie Nelson

format: 16-bit Stereo CD
label: Lost Highway
release year: 2005
performance: 5
sound 4
reviewed by: Charles Andrews

Image I so wanted this album to be great. I wanted Willie to pull off what seemed like the impossible – again. I wanted to love this album, and try to convince a skeptical audience to give it a chance. And you should.

But I cannot tell a lie. I’ve listened more than a dozen times. And except for the first three tracks – the one with Toots (of the Maytals) Hibbert is absolute killah – it just doesn’t work.

But hold on! Countryman debuted on the country charts at #6! And while the critics’ reviews trickling in are generally not favorable, the ones from Joe and Jane Fan are. It may be a little premature, but what the heck, I’m feeling presidential: Mission Accomplished, Willie!

Willie Nelson has made an amazing career out of doing things everyone said you couldn’t, in the process becoming so famous and making so much money while camping way outside the Establishment that he even made devoted followers of the IRS. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he was singing in the church choir at four, composed his first song at seven, and by nine was playing in a band. After the Air Force, DJ gigs and the honky-tonk circuit, he headed for Nashville, no kid at 27, dug into his songwriting, and just a year later was making his fortune with his “Four Walls” hitting #1 for Faron Young, the great Patsy Cline securing her legend with his “Crazy,” and Billy Walker introducing the world to his “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

That got Nelson a deal the next year with Liberty Records and his second single, “Touch Me,” went to #7 – but that was the best he could do for the next 13 years. Dropping Nashville suits, ties and George Jones buzz cuts, he moved back to Texas, let his hair grow to his waist and turned loose his bandana-fringe thrift store bohemian self. He staged the Fourth of July picnics that brought together rock and country artists, and made him the darling of the emerging Austin music scene. In ’75, he signed with Columbia with a stipulation common in rock but nearly unheard of in country music: complete artistic control. Running with it, he handed Columbia, to their dismay, the stark horse opera Red Headed Stranger, and darned if its “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” didn’t make him an international star. Wanted: the Outlaws cemented his outsider image. Then he blew all minds by recording Stardust, an album of old pop standards – that stayed on the charts for 10 years. But by the early ‘80s, he fell out of favor again, and went 20 years between Grammies.

Never accused of looking like a model, Nelson nonetheless launched a prolific if not Oscar-caliber movie and TV career, long before it became part of the standard game plan for aspiring Nashville stars. His first chart song was a duet with his wife, and he has since teamed with Ray Charles, Webb Pierce, Sinead O’Connor, Leon Russell, Norah Jones, Hank Cochran, Sheryl Crow, Porter Wagoner, Julio Iglesias, Dolly Parton, Neil Young and actress Mary Kay Place. Among others. What a jukebox.

In Willie’s mind, it’s all just music. He loves reggae and he loves Jamaica’s #1 cash crop, so why not? And the Jamaicans looove old school country. I was so surprised some years ago when I got out into the countryside there and anticipated hearing what artists The People were listening to, and in the bars and out of the boom boxes, I heard more Merle Haggard and George Jones than Bob Marley. In ’95, Nelson headed down way-south with producer Don Was, and that might be where the problem started. Some people swear by Was as a brilliant, visionary producer, other people (count me in) just swear at him. Because Willie’s voice is really not well suited to reggae, and because they insisted on using the harmonica and pedal steel and Willie’s signature picking, it would’ve taken a great production/arranging effort to pull it off.

Island’s Chris Blackwell approved the project but then lost his label, and the original recordings, made in Los Angeles that year with members of Peter Tosh’s band and others, languished ‘til Nelson landed at Lost Highway Records. They urged him to finish it and producer Richard Feldman was brought in to mix and sweeten, and that was probably another mistake. Feldman did a credible job with Toots’ True Love album last year, but that was a series of duets mostly with non-Jamaican performers (Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Bootsy Collins). In order for this project to work, the music should be a lot harder-edged than it is. The problem is not with the musicians (with Wayne Jobson on guitar, and both Santa and Sticky on percussion, you’re in good hands), but rather what was done with their recordings. If this were handed over to Lee “Scratch” Perry, the Mad Professor or any number of other respected Jamaican producers, we might be having fun by now.

Those first three cuts do mostly work, and Willie’s “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” and a song he co-wrote years ago with Ray Price, “I’ve Just Destroyed the World,” almost do. The biggest reason is that the music on these, to varying degrees, propels the song, instead of just genially percolating beneath it. That’s okay if you’ve got a strong reggae singer, which is why the one duet, with Toots Hibbert on Johnny and June Cash’s neglected classic “I’m a Worried Man,” stands out like a sore thumb. Willie sings the first four lines about a family man whose employer shut him out, but nothing he comes up with in the whole song is equal to Toots’ first moan to convey the drama of a man with hungry kids and no job.

While some people are loving his two remakes of Jimmy Cliff classics, “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo,” I hate ‘em. Is it because the originals are so much Cliff’s property it’s hard to hear any other voice doing them? Or do I have….a musical prejudice!?! Shouldn’t a country giant be able to record a reggae album, as much as a hatful of standards? Shouldn’t Elvis Costello be able to do chamber music, or The Who a rock opera, or Paul Anka a collection of alt rockers? Of course. But the results here are just simply out of whack, there’s no avoiding it.

People (including my publisher) look at me weird and back up a step when I put forth that I think Willie Nelson is one of the greatest vocalists on the planet, but I’ll defend that to my grave. He’s deceptive because his style is so conversational, but he glides exactly to every note with his absolutely unique phrasing, more akin to jazz than anything else. When country vocalizing is at its most emotional, it can probably best be described as melancholy. Reggae is soulful. And maybe the twain don’t meet. At least not much on Countryman.

But you should give it a whirl and see if it charms you. It is a startling treat the first few times you hear Nelson’s voice, and the pedal steel, and even Mickey Raphael’s harmonica, “reggae-ized,” dub-echoed into the parking lot. Occasionally to good effect, but usually not. There’s a reason why, in dirt-poor Jamaica, you don’t see a lot of musicians taking up the cheap and portable harmonica.

To his credit, Willie stuck with the 12 tracks he laid down in ’95 and the recording comes in under 36 minutes, less than half what some artists will try to cram on their discs. I’d rather see that than 20 minutes of garbage on the end.

A reader offered this description online: “This album reminds me of the first time I tried peanut butter on pancakes (no I wasn't stoned) ... It took a couple bites but I really, really liked it.”

Willie. Reggae. Bite me.

The sound is the culprit here. Willie loves to do duets despite the fact that nobody, probably including himself, knows where that voice is going to go in the next moment, and it’s only by chance that he stays with his partner. (Ray Charles probably did the best job, because he was the same way.) We forget that years ago we all had to adjust to that in the context of country music. A few others, notably Merle Haggard, have the ability and inclination, and the loose structure of country music will accommodate it. But reggae is heartbeat music, with bass lines that will loosen your fillings and a syncopated drumming style that requires the voice to move among the elements in a structure that’s rock solid. When Nelson’s voice tries to float on top of the music, it feels unconnected. So it seems the producer(s) softened the instrumental approach to accommodate his voice, when in fact what they should have done was toughen it. If the music were more beat-laden, Willie’s vocals would be swept along. The Jamaicans invented dub, which usually has no vocals at all and doesn’t require them. A few dub elements are used here, but ineffectively, even inappropriately. And there’s too much gimmickry, those little bleeps and boings that can quickly cheapen a reggae song into parody. You also hear the occasional musicians’ comment or exclamation, buried on the fringes of the mix but audible and therefore disconcerting. The harmonica is often used as a percussion instrument, which is kind of like bringing wet coals to Newcastle.

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