An aptly named release for Willie. This, his ten millionth release in a career that started during the late Palaeolithic era, brings no surprises but no disappointments either. There are those that get a late-career boost by going to Rick Rubin for a back-to-basics strip down and those that court mainstream popularity with a country-rock-pop revamping but that’s not Willie’s way. His methods have got him through a few thousand years. Well, mostly….. Having founded Farm Aid in the eighties, to bail out American farmers that were being foreclosed on by the banks (the villains in every tale), Willie had to be dug out of a financial hole in 1990 by an event gloriously titled Willie Aid.
The man is a legend, even now, in his seventies, when he could be playing supper clubs or Vegas. Still a top-class scruff with long hair in twin plaits and a bandanna, he tours with his band. A couple of years the tour bus was stopped, searched and a pound and a half of dope found, along with magic mushrooms found. The band all took joint responsibility. He campaigns for the legalisation of cannabis.I like to think he’s still enjoying happy trips and trails in his seventh decade. His 2006 single, following the release of Brokeback Mountain was “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond Of Each Other”.
I was lucky enough to see Willy play a couple of years ago and he hurtled through songs, playing angular guitar. Notes would come out all over the shop, in rough and ready style, yet is was expressive and apt. Here, on disc, he is always more refined. Where his guitar is audible, it is manicured, polite and, for me, less direct. Make no mistake though, he is always clear it is a percussive instrument, plucking the nylon strings firmly. It’s the pedal steel that does all the crying. The voice though – you can’t mess with the voice. It’s an unpolished diamond and has only improved in rough-edged atmosphere over the decades. Willy began his career as a songwriter (penning Crazy, Pretty Paper, Hello Walls and Funny How Time Slips Away), turning out songs for the likes of Patsy Cline, before he got a chance to record his own songs. These songs would barely top a couple of minutes, running; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, first verse again (to stretch proceedings out), chorus. Here, he plays plenty of other peoples’ songs (only one of his own), including some standards and still doesn’t break the three-minute barrier. Having recently gone back and stripped orchestral and chorus tracks off his old work, producer T-Bone Burnett has done as simple a job here as he can, without recording it in a shed on a cassette.
The songs’ subjects won’t surprise anyone – he offers advice in how to cry all night, tells us how it is to sail away from your lover, sings a very folky Dark As A Dungeon, a great little country waltz about how he’s Gotta Walk Alone, a Tom Waits-ian gospel-blues, mourns that his baby has gone, plays a Freight Train Boogie with harmonica, and advises against accumulating wealth instead of a Satisfied Mind. It’s familiar and classic ground, mixing blues, country, folk and a touch of rock and roll (Pistol Packing Mama gets a simple and rocking treatment on walking double bass). The album closes on the blues standard, Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Done sparse and dark, the blues run deep through it and, finally, Willy’s guitar gets a chance to shine in it’s individual way, as much his own as his vocal cords. Although often sad, the album isn’t sorry for itself or maudlin and the tempos are upbeat. These are the essential topics for roots music and music this simple is made for singing along to, somehow exorcising the sadness demons. The album is nice and simple and acoustic, without any strings, dancier beats or choirs or the other nonsense people mix into stuff, looking for radio play. This is for people who’re not afraid of liking country music.
If you’re not big on Willie Nelson, it’s not a bad jumping on point but you might want to grab an earlier one (like Red Headed Stranger) to sample more of his self-penned 2-verse classics of woe like You Wouldn’t Cross The Street To Say Goodbye.
ROUNDER RECORDS 3.5.10