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(Island Records 514 542 517 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/4/2000)
While many younger performers who ride the waves of pop music fads quickly fade from the scene, there are those whose musical career is a long-term commitment, usually enduring a series of ups and downs. It's also particularly gratifying to see an artist continue to remain creative over the long term. Willie Nelson is the epitome of the weathered musical veteran who never fails to keep his fans intrigued by what he'll do next, an artist who has explored a surprisingly broad swath of musical territory, usually with little regard to its commercial potential.
Nelson has just turned his attention to the blues on a new release called Milk Cow Blues, and he proves his abilities in another of the great American music forms to which he applied himself, ranging from country, to Tin Pan Alley Standards to rock.
Willie Nelson's biography is the stuff of musical legend. Growing up with his grandparents in Texas, after his father died and mother ran away, young Willie began playing music with his sister Bobbie, and was writing songs by age seven. When Bobbie joined a band, she invited Willie to become part of it, and thus began his professional musical career. After writing a song that became a hit for singer Claude Grey in 1960, Nelson moved to Nashville to try to make his name there. And by 1961, his songs were becoming hits for such artists as Faron Young, who recorded Nelson's Hello Walls, Ray Price who first recorded what would become a classic, Night Life, and perhaps Nelson's most durable song, Crazy, as performed by Patsy Cline. After a few not-very-successful recordings as a performer, he began to attract attention in the 1970s collaborating on and off with Waylon Jennings, as part of the so-called "Outlaw" country scene, so-named because it avoided the Nashville regime. In the 1980s, he launched a film career, and became active in the Farm Aid benefit concert series. By 1990, he had his now infamous tangle with the IRS, which re-possessed almost everything he owned to pay a huge back tax bill. He eventually bounced back and has been keeping active ever since, doing a series of albums in various musical genres, ranging from country to more of the swing and classic American songs in the vein of his big hit album Stardust from 1978.
After a somewhat spacey, country-oriented album in 1998 called Teatro, Willie Nelson takes up the blues on the appropriately named Milk Cow Blues, and he enlists a number of high-profile blues performers to join him in a series of vocal duets, including B.B. King, Dr. John, Keb' Mo', and up-and-coming performers like Susan Tedeschi, and Johnny Lang. He is joined by his regular Texas band which includes guitarist Derek O'Brien, keyboard man Riley Osborne, bassist Jon Blondell, drummer George Raines and Nelson's quarter-century-tenured harmonica player Mickey Raphael. The guests make mostly vocal appearances, but Dr. John and Kenny Wayne Shepherd also make strictly instrumental cameos on some tracks. The style represents the jazzier side of the blues spectrum, which Nelson has no trouble fitting into. The material mostly dates from the 1930s through the 1960s, and it also serves as a reminder of some of the classic songs Nelson himself wrote over the years for others, which he includes on Milk Cow Blues, such as Crazy and Night Life. His band's playing is quite tasteful, and with their experience in backing Nelson's forays into Tin Pan Alley standards, the players fit right into the old-time blues that predominates this CD.
The generous 15-song album leads off with its title track, Milk Cow Blues, which dates back to 1934. It's one of those old blues songs with double entendre-laden lyrics. Nelson is joined by singer Francine Reed, who has also graced albums by Lyle Lovett. The easy-going, swingy arrangement typifies the great laid-back feel of the album as a whole. <<>>
Pianist Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack makes one of two appearances on the 1951 Jesse May Robinson song Black Night. Dr. John's distinctly New Orleans touch makes this a highlight of the CD. <<>>
Nelson re-visits five of his own songs from early in his career, which were made into hits by others. Though in the early 1960s, Nelson was writing mainly for Nashville country artists, his 1964 composition Rainy Day Blues is definitely in the bluesy mode. It features some vocal help by teenaged blues sensation Johnny Lang. <<>>
Susan Tedeschi is the guest on Nelson's classic Crazy, made famous by Patsy Cline. Though the tune is not really a blues, nor was it ever really a country song either, Ms. Tedeschi gives it a decidedly bluesy treatment when her verses come along. <<>>
B.B. King appears on the song that has become his trademark, The Thrill Is Gone, which Nelson and company serve up in a somewhat funkier arrangement than B.B. King usually does, but King makes his presence known, from both his vocals and guitar work. <<>>
The other song with B.B. King is one which Nelson co-wrote, and which King has previously recorded, Night Life. <<>> Guitarist Derek O'Brien and King have a chance to exchange some licks. <<>>
Another of the album's best tracks is the 1955 Johnny Fuller song Fool's Paradise. Dr. John again appears, but this time just at the piano. His presence seems to lift the whole band into especially great form. <<>>
On the other hand, the CD gets a little off track on Lonely Street, a song from 1956. It's a sentimental country ballad that is not a particularly good fit with the rest of this bluesy CD. <<>>
The album ends its longest track at about eight and a half minutes, Texas Flood, a 1958 composition that was made famous in the rock era by Stevie Ray Vaughan. The guest artist is guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd who exchanges some hot licks with Derek O'Brian. <<>>
At nearly 67 years of age, Willie Nelson remains the restless musical adventurer on the one hand, and practically an American institution on the other. Nelson tackles the blues very successfully on Milk Cow Blues a CD which is generally enhanced by the various guest appearances. Nelson's notoriously nasal voice works surprisingly well for the blues, as they had on his interpretation of Tin Pan Alley standards in the past. His band is outstanding, as well, keeping things very tasteful with their generally understated playing. The album also provides some nice re-interpretations of a few of the great songs that Willie Nelson wrote for others nearly 40 years ago.
Our grade for sound quality is a B+. The album is generally well mixed, with a pleasing sound free from unnecessary studio effects. But the dynamic range is somewhat lacking on this otherwise retro-sounding album, and there are some noticeable bits of distortion on some of the instruments and vocals during the loudest passages as if the engineer were not watching levels carefully enough. But those moments don't last long, and the CD generally rewards listening on a good stereo system.
To some it might seem an oxymoron for a country music institution like Willie Nelson to do an album of the blues, but over a 40 years career, Nelson proves that he is not going to stay in one spot very long. And the album has the side benefit of demonstrating how much the blues and country have in common. Nelson's venture into another of the great American music forms proves to be one of his best releases in some time.
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