Lost Highway Records, 2005
REVIEW BY: Bruce Rusk
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/30/2005
Willie Nelson is an adventurous guy who is not afraid to branch out into new directions. But on his newest release Countryman, he makes a wrong turn -- to Jamaica.
Countryman is an album of reggae music, mostly original tricks penned by Willie himself. But it's reggae in name only. The instrumentation mimics reggae style but never captures the deep spirit of the music, with the funky drop-beats and off-handed, lackadaisical style that colors classic reggae music watered down to a mere shadow of their origins.
Reggae is not just a style, it's a culture with its own deep roots. The familiar vibrant rhythms and natural, spiritual flow are a huge part of what makes it so powerful. Here those elements are mimicked with some degree of skill, but lack any depth, leaving them bland and soulless. Part of the beauty of reggae is the organic nature of the music. This stuff sounds stiff and lifeless.
I don't want to dis Willie outright -- he's a talented guy who has done a lot of great things. I'm sure this was a labor of love for him, but I feel it was a misguided one. It's simple enough to cop a reggae vibe and apply it to any song, which is what this sounds like. But it's not reggae and it's not country, nor is it a clean mixture of the two. It just sounds like the same old Willie singing to a different beat.
Case in point: the opening track, "Something To Think About." The mock-reggae beat sounds canned and Willie sings in an identical manner to what he would do if the same song were done in his typical country style. Laying a pedal-steel guitar over a dub beat doth not reggae make. It's too bad because the original songs aren't bad, they're just played to the wrong rhythm. One of Nelson's originals, "Darkness On The Face Of The Earth" is a good song that might be great if he just played it in straight-up Willie style. As it is, it gets a sort of upbeat treatment and robs the lyrics of their depth. The biggest flaw, really, is Nelson's inability to sing outside his tried and true personal style. His simple, twangy delivery, which works so well in his own musical realm, flattens the emotion of many of the songs. Oddly the two songs that almost work are the two songs by reggae pioneer Jimmy Cliff. If Willie has taken a different track, performing reggae covers in pure country style, they probably would have been very good.
Why anyone ever thought there would be an audience for this is beyond me. Reggae fans will despise this and country fans probably will likely reject it unless they smoke as much locoweed as Willie has.
Steve Legget of Allmusic.com put it far more succinctly than I ever could "There isn't enough ganja in Kingston, or enough whiskey in Nashville to make this work".