Though he’s known as a “country” artist, Willie Nelson’s output over the last decade has covered just about everything but country music, using his inimitable warble to tackle an impressive range of musical styles including traditional blues, reggae, gospel, western swing, and traditional pop. But it’s hard to hear Nelson’s latest, Country Music, as anything but a welcome homecoming for the singer. As a singer, songwriter, and performer, Nelson has been instrumental in shaping the country genre, and it’s there that he sounds most natural and most affecting.
And T Bone Burnett, fresh off his Academy Award win for Crazy Heart, ensures that the production on Nelson’s album fully lives up to its name. Enlisting a backing band that includes some of Nashville’s finest musicians, including Buddy Miller and Ronnie McCoury, Burnett’s reverence for traditional country remains strong, even as he leaves a decidedly contemporary amount of reverb in the audio mixes. The complete effect is that the album sounds like it was just unearthed from Nelson’s vaults.
That Nelson is in especially fine vocal form only heightens the impression that the album was recorded decades ago. Always a master song stylist, Nelson’s iconic, languid sense of phrasing is a natural fit with songs like Hank Williams’s “House of Gold” and such traditional cuts as “I Am a Pilgrim” and “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” The song selection proves Nelson and Burnett’s depth of knowledge of the country genre: “Gotta Walk Alone” is a fairly obscure Bob Wills tune, and even the traditional “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down” is a leftfield choice. The cover of Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,” a highlight from Kathy Mattea’s brilliant Coal, is perhaps the only misstep, seeming like a spectacularly ill-timed choice given the recent coal mine tragedy in West Virginia. Still, it’s the spectacular collection of songs as much as Burnett’s ace production and Nelson’s first-rate performances that elevates Country Music above the recent spate of country covers records and makes the album an essential addition to Nelson’s rich catalogue.