Six decades into his storied, iconic career, Willie Nelson is returning to his roots. In recent years he’s genre-hopped, lending his worn-in voice and battered guitar to alt-country, pop, reggae, jazz, western swing, blues, and gospel. And he’s managed to touch on nearly every aspect of Americana in the meantime, maintaining a stunning level of quality for a man who releases two to three albums a year without fail.
It’s fitting that for his first bluegrass album – simply titled Country Music – Nelson brought in T Bone Burnett, who won both an Oscar and a Grammy for his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. As a result, Country Music is Nelson’s purest, most stripped-down album in years, sounding like a welcome homecoming for a wayward wanderer.
Perhaps at 77 years of age Nelson felt it was time he paid tribute to the genre he so helped to shape. Country Music is a look at where the genre came from, and Nelson’s warmly croaky voice sounds right at home on standards and traditional songs like Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, I Am A Pilgrim and Nobody’s Fault But Mine.
Burnett’s production – both pristine and subtly old-timey – demonstrates his deep reverence for traditional country music. Nelson’s return to Nashville is backed by some of that city’s finest – among them, Buddy Miller and Ronnie McCoury. With its simple instrumentation and true-to-the-genre lack of percussion, Country Music allows Nelson’s voice, and his frenetic guitar playing to take the front seat, amid a hitchhiker’s gang of fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and harmonicas.
Nelson’s lilting sense of melody – the way he drops the end of a line, lending a sense of gnarled wisdom and urgency – fits right into this selection of songs. He saunters through Bob Wills‘s lightly swinging I Gotta Walk Alone.
He imbues Merle Travis‘s Dark As A Dungeon with a sense of graveness and despair (though not quite as much as Johnny Cash did on Live From Folsom Prison). It’s a shame about the timing, though; it’s nearly impossible to hear a song about coal miners without thinking of the recent tragedy in West Virginia, especially in lyrics like, “Where the demons of death often come by surprise, one fall of the slate and you’re buried alive.”
Country Music is vintage Willie Nelson, sounding like it could well be a lost tape from the Red Headed Stranger sessions. While he’s certainly earned his right to experiment with genres – really, to do whatever the hell he wants – he’s never so affecting or engaging as when he’s reduced to his quivering roots. T Bone Burnett can be credited with bringing bluegrass back into the public eye, and Willie Nelson is a fitting torchbearer to carry the sounds of Appalachia into another new decade.