Friday, May 07, 2010

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: WILLIE WORLD

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 7, 2010


There are no guest appearances by Kid Rock or Sting, no detours into reggae, and no covers of Grateful Dead or Fleetwood Mac songs.

The title of Willie Nelson’s latest album is direct and correct: Country Music. And though it’s hardly an essential addition to the vast body of work the prolific singer has given us in the last five decades or so, it’s a dandy little effort with some fine performances and classic country tunes.

The album is produced by T Bone Burnett, which instantly supplies an inroad to the NPR crowd. (A press release that came with the promo copy of the album announced it will be sold at Starbucks.) As with his other projects, Burnett is tasteful, if a little subdued. He’s gathered some impressive musicians here, including Buddy Miller on guitar, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Jim Lauderdale supplying background vocals.

This album probably could have been named “Bluegrass Music,” and only the most prissy purists would argue. Indeed, it’s the closest thing to a bluegrass album Willie’s ever done with songs like “Ocean of Diamonds,” “I Am a Pilgrim,” and “Gotta Walk Alone.” Even his covers of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold,” Ray Price’s “You Done Me Wrong,” and his own early tune “Man With the Blues” sound as if they came from the hills of Kentucky, thanks largely to McCoury, banjo man Riley Baugus, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. True, there’s some steel guitar (by Russell Pahl), which isn’t a traditional bluegrass instrument, but most of the time it’s in the background.

And there are a few bluesy, jazzy tracks, the best of which are “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” which is carried by the stand-up bass of Dennis Crouch, and The Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie.” Yes, I still like Doc Watson’s version best, but Willie’s isn’t bad.

That’s also true for this version of “Drinking Champagne,” a classic honky-tonker written by Bill Mack that’s been covered by folks from Carl Smith to Dean Martin. Willie’s version is nice and pretty, but it doesn’t have a fraction of the soul that Jerry Lee Lewis poured into the song in the ’60s.

And maybe Willie’s cover of the Porter Wagoner signature tune “Satisfied Mind” isn’t definitive. But it sure sounds good, and he sings it like he means it.

Willie Nelson just turned 77 a week ago. That he can still crank out albums as good as Country Music is nothing short of amazing.

Steve Terrell’s Ultimate Willie List

* Top 10 Songs written by Willie Nelson
1. “Something to Think About”
2. “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”
3. “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye”
4. “Bloody Mary Morning”
5. “Hello Walls”
6. “I’ve Got to Get Drunk”
7. “My Own Peculiar Way”
8. “I Still Can’t Believe That You’re Gone”
9. “Permanently Lonely”
10. “Funny How Time Slips Away”

* Best Willie album: Phases and Stages
* Best Willie tribute album: Twisted Willie (with outlaw pals like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson; plus ’90s “alternative” acts like L7, The Supersuckers, The Reverend Horton Heat, and Mark Lanegan, and Willie himself)
* Best Remake of a Willie album: Red Headed Stranger by Carla Bozulich. (Willie makes a guest appearance too.)
* Best Willie appearance on a tribute album: “Ride ’em Jewboy” on Pearls in the Snow: The Songs of Kinky Friedman
* Best Willie duet: Tie — “Seven Spanish Angels” with Ray Charles and “Sioux City Sue” with Leon Russell
* Best Willie & Waylon duet: “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” (written by Tom T. Hall)
* Best song by a superstar trio featuring Willie: “Old Friends” with Roger Miller and Ray Price
* Best Willie Dylan cover: “SeƱor” (with Calexico from the I’m Not There soundtrack album)
* Best Willie cover: Tie —“Hello Walls” by Faron Young and “Night Life” by Ray Price
* Best Willie cover by Waylon: “Pretend I Never Happened”
* How many female vocalists does it take to cover “Crazy”?: Apparently all of them
* Last great song Willie wrote: “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” (circa 1980)
* Willie song most likely to supply a title for a sci-fi movie: “I Just Destroyed the World.”
* Willie song most likely to be played at a gay pride event: “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other” (written by Ned Sublette, performed by Willie)
* Best religious song Willie wrote: “In God’s Eyes”
* Weirdest Willie spoken-word piece: The conversation between the unborn Willie and God at the beginning of the Yesterday’s Wine album
* Best Willie TV commercial: Taco Bell, early ’90s (he sang a song called “Lady With the Rose Tattoo”)
* Best Willie tax return: The I.R.S. Tapes: Who’ll Buy My Memories (Willie recorded and sold this to pay off an enormous tax bill)
* Best guilty-pleasure Willie song: “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” with Julio Iglesias
* Best not-guilty Willie courtroom appearance: Last month at Billy Joe Shaver’s aggravated assault case in Waco. What Texas jury is going to convict somebody when Willie Nelson’s there to show his support?
* Willie album that proves marijuana can cause brain damage: Countryman (Willie’s reggae album)

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