Willie Nelson: “Country Music”
It’s been so long since Willie Nelson recorded a straight-ahead, concept-free recording of simple country songs that the title of 2010’s Country Music is less an understated irony, more a necessary qualifier– but also a tell-tale sign that this isn’t the loose, amiable Willie of old, but a Willie who continues to approach each album as a sort of formal exercise, which is basically what Country Music is. He’s done reggae, he’s done blues, he’s done a Cindy Walker tribute and a set of American standards, and now he makes an album of traditional country music– an album that is not only confined to a particular style, but shaped sonically by a specific collaborator, in this case T-Bone Burnett, who is truly the album’s chief architect, Willie simply his easy-going, ever-agreeable mouthpiece.
The upside to this set of country standards is that this is the kind of music Willie grew up with and can play in his sleep, and his natural ease here is only enhanced by the fact that he has, of late, been game for recording with basically anybody, so he sounds perfectly comfortable in T-Bone’s vintage country set-pieces. And make no mistake: The goal of this album is to emulate the sound of vintage country music through and through, something that separates it from the more cinematic soundscapes of T-Bone’s recent work with Jakob Dylan; here, it’s all about the organic interplay between the musicians– among them Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller— on traditional string instruments, a soung that’s steeped in classic country music with heavy doses of bluegrass, as well as hints here and there of honky-tonk.
But if everything here sounds perfectly agreeable and pleasantly old-timey, the one thing is never is is relaxed; despite the organic performances and generally slow tempos, the album is, in its own way, every bit as rigidly conceptual as anything Willie’s done in the last decade or so, and it benefits neither from T-Bone’s continued obsession with recreating the “authenticity” of analog Americana or Willie’s ongoing genre endeavors, two factors that make this feel more like a forced bit of historical reenactment than the loose, unpretentious return to form it might have been for Nelson. It’s also not his turn for a Raising Sand style comeback– T-Bone’s atmospheric country noir is replaced here by something that is, at times, coldly calculating in its classicist approximation– but, if nothing else, it’s fun to hear Willie take a turn at these songs, and if the album isn’t the creative revitalization it might have been, it’s at least consistent and immaculately played and produced, and never anything less than enjoyable.