3 stars (out of 5)
Excepting Johnny Cash, there’s no more distinctive stylist in the post-honky-tonk world of country music than Willie Nelson. A tremendously talented singer-songwriter, the genres he has dabbled in—blues, jazz, pop and even reggae—all flavor his brand of country.
Country Music strips those layers away in favor of a mostly acoustic sound that’s contains elements of honky-tonk, Western swing and bluegrass, all strains of country that blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s. Famed producer T Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Crazy Heart) helms the soundboard, but there’s not really much that won’t go right with a band that includes Buddy Miller (electric guitar), Chris Sharp (acoustic guitar), Riley Baugus (banjo), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Dennis Crouch (bass), Russell Pahl (pedal steel) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle).
Willie occasionally picks away at his trademark gut-string guitar, and his voice sounds great, retaining its elastic quality to emote in both higher and lower registers. His performances here are, perhaps not surprisingly given his drug of choice, markedly laid back, bringing little spirit to 15 tracks spread over 54 minutes.
Upbeat tunes like his own “Man with the Blues,” and Doc Watson’s “Frieght Train Boogie” lack any urgency, and slower ones like “My Baby’s Gone” and “Drinking Champagne” are positively soporific.
There are flashes of genius here though, such as Willie vocal on “Ocean of Diamonds,” a tune made famous by bluegrasser Jimmy Martin, and rustic, banjo-led takes on “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down.” A jazzy, bass-driven “Pistol Packin’ Mama” also stands out.
Not a bad effort, but far from the spectacular result when Willie worked with another super-producer, Daniel Lanois, on 1998’s Teatro.
by Aaron Keith Harris