Willie Nelson - Songbird (Lost Highway) Keith Boyd 11.12.6
Willie Nelson is a National Treasure. But unlike most of them slowly gathering dust under bell jars and behind museum red velvet ropes, he’s still evolving. Willie seems to be in perpetual phoenix mode, constantly rising from the ashes of his own creations. From his days as a songwriter for such great as Patsy Cline to his recent forays into Reggae we can hear an artist seeking, finding, exploring then moving on. Though varied, his enormous body of work bears the unique stamp and imprint of his artistic vision. The scope and depth of his output stands as a parallel to our lives. Take a listen; it’s all in there. Birth, Death, Love, Cheating, Drunken Abandon and Sorrow.
I suppose what’s more remarkable than his longevity is his willingness to keep finding new ways to express himself. Willie Nelson’s voice and music have been a part of my life since childhood and it only takes a note or two of albums such as, “Stardust” or “The Red-Headed Stranger” for me to be instantly transported to the backyard barbecues of my childhood. There’s the smell of the grill, the sharp tang of opened beer on a hot day and the sound of Willie’s voice mingling with parent’s singing along. Music that can carry one through 30 plus years of life is strong medicine indeed.
On his new album, “Songbird” Willie continues his duel path of evolving and being himself. The crisp, full and creamy production by Ryan Adams makes this disc a truly delightful listen. The album hold up with any of the best of Willie’s music and manages to add a few new tricks to this old dog.
Instead of his long term backing band, “The Family” this time out WIllie is accompanied by Ryan Adams’ band, “The Cardinals”. They display a very different tone than we are used to hearing behind WIllie and the balance is skewed far more towards electric rock than the laid back picking we normally hear. For the most part the new setting works. There are a few instances where things sound a bit rushed or pushed but the quality of the arrangements and the care in the playing shine through. Much like Willie’s last album, “You Don’t Know Me” there are ample cover versions. This time however instead of concentrating on one singer/songwriter’s work, we get a bit of everything. He does a lovely version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that may in fact trump the original. He works over Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Dollar Wedding” doing it equal justice but my favorite has to be the lovely and warbling take on The Grateful Dead’s, ‘Stella Blue”. This melancholy meditation on love both lost and found and the pain of time passing is a perfect vehicle for Willie’s voice. Given both artists’ love of country, blues, bluegrass and gypsy jazz It’s a wonder Willie and The Dead never had any mutual run-ins or jams throughout the years. If this track is any indication, the results would have been magic.
“Songbird” is a delightful and surprising album from a rightfully revered artist. It’s low key charm makes it a perfect road trip disc. Here’s to the hoping that Willie Nelson will have many more years of creativity for us to enjoy. Now if the government could just leave poor WIllie alone, things would be perfect!