By my count (which may be completely inaccurate), Country Music is Willie Nelson’s 61st album since he released his debut LP And Then I Wrote in 1962. That in itself is a staggering achievement, but what is even more impressive is that although there have been a couple of missteps every now and then, for the most part he has managed to write and record consistently great music for over fifty years now.
Whether it’s his outlaw concept album Red Headed Stranger (from 1975), the sublime Stardust (from 1978) or the ethereal blues of 1995’s Teatro, time and time again Nelson has produced work that is both moving and raw and which seems to find a much greater audience than it should. Of recent times, Nelson has continued to release exceptional original material (It Always Will Be from 2004) and new interpretations of popular gems (last year’s American Classic).
So it was no surprise to me (a big fan) that he’s latest offering would be anything less than brilliant. What was a surprise, though, was just how brilliant it turned out to be. Nelson had decided to record a traditional country album of covers and put together a crack band, featuring Buddy Miller and Chris Sharp; he then employed T Bone Burnett to produce the record. What all of this means, of course, is that at the ripe old age of 77, Willie Nelson has made one of the best albums of his stellar career.
Country Music is a heartfelt, thought-provoking, and truly soulful collection of songs that finds Nelson at the top of his game. The beautiful harmonies between himself and Jim Lauderdale have to be heard to be believed, and the sheer musicianship from this bunch of guys is a joy to hear. All of the hallmarks of country are represented in heartbreak, lost loves, financial woes, and blind drunkardness, but the wonderful thing is that not once does anything on this record sound clichéd or generic.
These guys are way above that sort of thing, and they have made sure that with each of the 15 tracks here that Nelson has a fresh sound, all thanks to their considerable bag of tricks. The stripped-down jive that is “Pistol Packin’ Mama” works a treat as Nelson weaves a tale of a woman scorned with great effect. An intoxicating reworking of “Ocean Of Diamonds” is just as effective as is the beautiful sentiment Nelson has found within “Drinking Champagne.”
Nelson’s own “Man With The Blues” fits right in with the swell of traditional material to be found here like “Seaman’s Blues” and “Satisfied Mind.” A couple of my personal favorites would have to be the coal miner’s lament of “Dark As A Dungeon” (penned by Merle Travis) and the seriously groovy “Freight Train Boogie.” One of the most powerful cuts on the record finds Nelson digging deep for all he can muster on “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” It’s a truly haunting track and obviously only a man of Nelson’s faith could deliver such a stirring moment.
Nelson also hits pay dirt with a simple but moving version of Hank Williams’ “House Of Gold” and a mystical slow-dance through “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” It’s always a thrill for me to hear artists that have been around for so long still delivering work of this quality. Nelson, it appears, will continue that blues/country tradition of working right up to the end, and I hope that’s still a long time coming because this guy really is the Grand Master of Country Music.