On a day trip to Fort Worth last Tuesday, I spent a lot of time with Texas legend Willie Nelson.
His latest offering, “Country Music,” has been sitting on my desk for some time, so Tuesday seemed the perfect time to dust it off and put in rotation on the car’s stereo.
Nelson covers old-time “real” country tunes on this record, produced by T Bone Burnett.
“Seaman’s Blues,” by Billy Talmadge and Ernest Tubb, is a lament that could be played any night at any honky-tonk worth its longnecks and sawdust floors.
Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon” is particularly haunting, considering the tragedy in West Virginia and the triumph in Chile.
Riley Baugus’ banjo, Russell Pahl’s pedal steel and Shad Cobb’s fiddle shroud the song with sound as mournful as the lyrics:
Nelson pays tribute to Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, with a cover of “Gotta Walk Alone.”
Stuart Duncan’s sweet fiddle fills each measure with loneliness and loss. Duncan and Pahl shine in the break. If Martians were to land here and ask to hear country music, this is the song we should play for them.
Nelson and company pick up the pace a bit with Doc Watson’s “Freight Train Boogie.” Joining Nelson on this and several vocals is Jim Lauderdale. Anyone who can hang with Willie, who is famous for bending lyrics until they almost break, is my kind of singer.
And, of course, there’s the great harmonica of long-time Nelson band member Mickey Raphael. There’s no one better, and he earns his chops every time he steps up to a microphone.
Although Bill Mack’s great song, “Drinking Champagne,” is more closely associated with “King” George Strait, Nelson and Lauderdale do a smooth job interpreting the lyrics.
Duncan’s fiddle, along with great bass licks by Dennis Crouch, add a perfect backdrop to the ballad.
Ray Price and George Jones wrote “You Done Me Wrong,” an uptempo love-gone-bad tune that zips right along with the help of Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin and Pahl’s liquid steel.
Nelson goes way back to 1949 on his cover of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold.”
Again, Lauderdale ups the ante with harmonies as smooth as silk.
While these covers let Nelson do what Nelson does best – sing country songs – it’s in the gospel numbers where the true treasure lies.
In “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” Baugus’ banjo provides an ethereal backdrop to Nelson’s wavering baritone.
When Duncan comes in with his fiddle on the second stanza, it’s a hair-raising moment.
Lauderdale’s lilting harmony lingers long after the song is over.
(A note to Satan: You don’t stand a chance when Willie’s singing this one.)
Nelson’s opening guitar licks on “I’m a Pilgrim” are an example of just how good music can be honored by a master. No one who’s ever heard “On the Road Again” or any of Nelson’s other mega-hits could ever mistake his playing for anyone else’s.
Perhaps the most stunning moment of all is Nelson’s take on an ages-old spiritual, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”
Led Zeppelin and Nina Simone covered it, but Nelson’s take leaves them in the dust.
Crouch opens with a solid bass line and Mike Compton lays down some really eerie mandolin licks, while Nelson’s acoustic guitar and Shad Cobb’s fiddle float above it all.
It’s a whole church service condensed down to 4:27.
Willie Nelson will be playing at the Oil Palace in Tyler on Saturday, Dec. 11.
Tickets range from $35-$100.
Call 903-566-2121 or log on to www.oilpalace.com for more information.
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