red lights


Country coot and rocking whippersnapper
produce a modern gem

Willie Nelson - Songbird
(Lost Highway)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Oct. 24, 2006
Willie Nelson

Review by Tony Bonyata

Ever since the young producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys / Run-DMC / Red Hot Chili Peppers) turned country legend Johnny Cash's sagging career into artist and commercial gold with his brilliant American Recordings series, which began back in '94, other legends have followed suit by teaming up with much younger, influential artists and producers to appeal to a broader, if not decidedly younger audience. Loretta Lynn secured The White Stripes' leader Jack White for her 2004 return-to-form Van Lear Rose album, while Bob Dylan is currently out touring with indie-rock darlings Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon and The Raconteurs (also led by Jack White).

Now the 73-year old country star Willie Nelson has turned to the prolific musician Ryan Adams, 42 years his junior, to helm the boards for his latest album entitled Songbird. Not only has Adams produced this fulfilling effort but he's also brought his own backing band, The Cardinals, to add richer production values and arrangements than Willie's "family" of longtime musicians have throughout his recording career.

On Songbird Nelson and Adams cover numbers from The Grateful Dead ("Stella Blue"), Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah"), Gram Parsons ($1000 Wedding"), Fleetwood Mac ("Songbird"), along with the traditional "Amazing Grace." In addition, Nelson also revisits his own "Sad Songs and Waltzes" (from Shotgun Willie), "We Don't Run" (from Spirit) and "Rainy Day Blues" (from Me and the Drummer).

But instead of sounding like a tired collection of cover versions, the pairing of Nelson's honest country roots and Adams' Americana sensibilities, along with a band that adds so much heart, soul and true grit to these better known numbers, makes them all feel surprisingly brand new. The Cardinals add a whiskey-soaked blues swagger to Nelson's opener "Rainy Day Blues," while on the cover of Harlan Howard's "Yours Love" (which was originally a 1968 hit by Waylon Jennings) Jon Graboff adds a hauntingly beautiful pedal steel guitar to this lovely, understated traditional country diamond. The band also manages to kick up a dust storm on the rollicking take of "We Don't Run," while on "Blue Hotel" (a new song penned by Adams, and, quite arguably, the strongest track on the album) Nelson's aching vocals are perfectly wedded to this country-turned-born again gospel number.

Age be damned, Nelson's voice has never sounded better, and there's no better proof than on the gentle "Back To Earth" and tear-jerking ballad "Sad Songs & Waltzes," the latter which Nelson bemoans, "though my record may say it, no one will play it, 'cause sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year." After the October 31st release of Songbird, however, Willie may need to revisit this statement, as these particular songs and waltzes will undoubtedly get the play they deserve.

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