Willie Nelson: Songbird


In these latter years of his career, country icon and willing collaborator Willie Nelson has hooked up with a who’s who of musicians, lending his distinctive baritone to everyone from Toby Keith to reggae icon Toots Hibbert – a project which presumably spawned 2005’s Countryman, a country-reggae fusion album and Nelson’s most recent solo release of original material (a tribute album, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs Of Cindy Walker, came out earlier this year).

Indeed, this village doorknob has turned out some great stuff in recent years, much of which has found him lurking outside his own skin. Fitting for a guy with a knack for tasteful reinvention.

Songbird, Nelson’s sixth release in three years on the Lost Highway label, is a collaborative effort in its own right, with Ryan Adams behind the knobs and his Cardinals playing house band. Yep, Nelson is dipping his wrinkly toes into that alt-country pool.

But not all the way in. Though the Adams/Cardinals influence abounds in the production and instrumentation, the material itself is a mixed bag of relaxed electric rock, blues, and country tunes. Nelson’s lazy voice is the perfect vehicle for the sedated-yet-optimistic feel of this ballad-heavy set, and is complemented nicely by The Cardinals’ lush twang.

The byproduct is a pointedly-produced blend of artsy balladry and loose interpretation. Adams‘ "Blue Hotel" and the ensuing "Back To Earth" embody the generally weighty theme at play on Songbird, while bluesy opener "Rainy Day Blues" and the rolling rocker "We Don’t Run" lighten the mood and allow the band some room to stretch.

But front-and-center on Songbird is Nelson’s — and Adams’, for that matter — uncanny ability to make any song sound all his own. Take the haunting interpretation of Jerry Garcia’s "Stella Blue" and, more notably, the ballsy, minor-key makeover that likens the album-closing "Amazing Grace" to "House Of The Rising Sun" straight from the signature Blind Boys Of Alabama version. 

Critics are harking Songbird as his best effort in a decade. Tough to disagree with that, but many of Nelson’s recent boundary-traversing releases have become virtually incomparable to even his own discography.

Your first spin will tell you these arrangements are more Ryan Adams than they are Willie Nelson. So this is really just a Half Nelson. A superb release, yes; but comparisons to recent works should bear the acknowledgment that there are many, many Willies floating around these days. Still, the collaboration works, and leaves us hopeful that Adams and Nelson’s studio stint was a raucous, hazy bender that has them eager to meet again.

Something tells me it was indeed just that.

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