“This is my definition of real country music.” That’s what Willie Nelson says about his new album, and, with that in mind, it’s interesting that he chooses to close the album with “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – which comes from the blues tradition, rather than country. It was the only song that Willie added to the list that producer T Bone Burnett brought for the album and is an inclusion that brings to mind Johnny Cash’s inclusive view of country music.
Aside from the traditionals, the songs date from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. They were made popular by names like Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams (The album actually starts out with one of Willie’s own from the 60s – “Man with the Blues.”). Most of the common country music themes are represented here like God, love, heartache, hard labor, drinking, mama and trains (no prison, though). The scope is pretty broad, which could have easily made the album feel all over the place, but it’s sequenced so well (not only in regards to theme but to tempo as well) that everything does feel a part of a whole – which is pretty impressive on an album where “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is followed by “My Baby’s Gone” and later “ I Am A Pilgrim” follows “Drinking Champagne.”
As is often the case with cover albums, it’s sometimes hard to hear an old favorite with fresh ears. Such was the case for me on “Dark As A Dungeon” because it just feels like it belongs to Johnny Cash (even though Merle Travis wrote it), and I’m sure some listeners may struggle with those feelings on others (Hank Williams’ “House of Gold”’ for one). Still, Willie is a great interpreter of song and is anchored here by an impressive group of musicians, including Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Buddy Miller on electric guitar and Jim Lauderdale, who contributes background vocals that are the perfect compliment to Willie’s voice. Anyone who felt that Willie seemed a little out of place backed by a jazz trio on last year’s “American Classic” will be thrilled with the instrumentation here, which also includes some great fiddle and steel guitar work. The loose feel of the performances (Willie likes to use the first take, and doesn’t like doing any more than three.), as well as the production often provide the most dramatic differences to earlier recordings of this material – especially on a song like George Jones and Ray Price’s “You Done Me Wrong.” This is country but country that is free of the “Nashville sound.”
The natural sound of Burnett’s production works wonders on a song like Al Dexter’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” especially if you remember Bing Crosby’s version (That song, along with Doc Watson’s “Freight Train Boogie,” also picks up the tempo enough to keep middle of the album from dragging too much.). The flipside to the loose, casual feel of the album is that it can also feel a little too unassuming, too unimportant. It has great players and great songs, but for whatever reason seems to fall a little flat (at least in the realm of Willie’s body of work). Still, it’s a nice record and an interesting history lesson as well for anyone who doesn’t remember or had forgotten some of these songs. I don’t know if it’s the definition of country music, but I’m not going to argue with him.