Countryman Label: Lost Highway
As a label, you can’t fault Lost Highway for their roster, a collection of talent that includes Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, and our man Willie amongst many others…but, at least when it comes to Nelson, you’re certainly within your rights to bitch a bit about the way they choose to market his material.
Lost Highway pushed his album from a few years ago because, hey, everybody, Rob Thomas wrote some of these songs! (To be fair, the songs were pretty good.) The following year, they pushed a live album because it was guest-stars-a-go-go…and, in way too short an order, proceeded to push a second live album for the same reason. However, when he put out an album last year – the more traditionally country It Always Will Be – press was strangely limited, even though it had duets with Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams.
Why, you ask? It’s possibly because Norah Jones' album of the same year didn't sell as well as its Grammy-winning predecessor, but it’s almost certainly because neither the drawing power of Jones nor Williams – not even combined – equal that of Rob Thomas. (Your mathematical calculations may vary, of course; we're talking about a businessman's perception of the mainstream record buying public here.)
Last year also saw Lost Highway put out a Willie Nelson best-of collection, one that focused on oft-compiled tracks mixed with more recent collaborations, and it got loads of press, including TV ads. Although the collection came out after the new studio album, unforgivably, it included not even so much as a mention of the release of It Always Will Be, nor even a token inclusion as the last track. Surely the man deserves a teaser for his new album tacked onto his umpteenth greatest-hits disc...but no.
So, now, here comes Willie's "reggae album”…and, suddenly, it's easy to give Willie some publicity, because they can use this album – most of which has been in the can for the better part of a decade – as a promotional gimmick. The next thing you know, there's an announcement about the album's impending release as a headline on Yahoo! News; there’s even a little bit of controversy -- always great for record sales -- about the fact that Wal-Mart refused to stock the album with its marijuana-emblazoned cover intact. (The pot leaf has been changed to a palm tree, thereby keeping Sam Walton from spinning in his grave. Whew, that was close!)
Unfortunately, as Willie albums go, this ain’t one of his best.
The idea of hearing Willie Nelson doing reggae covers in his inimitable style is one thing, but there are only two such covers here (both by Jimmy Cliff); everything else here, minus a cover of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “Worried Man,” is a Nelson original. Two of the songs are new; the remaining tracks have been rescued from his voluminous back catalog, but they’ve been…well, there’s no other way to say it: they’ve been reggaed up. We’re talking guitar, dub breaks, and even the occasional bit of skanking. The arrangements aren’t bad; it’s the production that’s over the top, trying too hard to force Willie’s songs into a reggae format. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that of Nelson’s compositions, the two new tracks, “Do You Mind Too Much If I Don’t Understand” and “I Guess I’ve Come to Live Here,” fare best.
It’d be easy to write the whole thing off as just a misguided idea that appeared in a puff of ganja smoke if it wasn’t for the fact that some of it -- not all of it, but some of it -- didn’t work so darned well. The duet with Toots Hibbert (he of Toots & the Maytals) on “Worried Man” finds the song transformed into reggae with little difficulty. Meanwhile, Willie’s countrified takes on Cliff’s “The Harder They Fall,” with gospel-inspired backing vocals, and “Sitting in Limbo” are worth the price of the album (or, at the very least, they’re both worth downloading); they’re so successful, in fact, that you find yourself wishing that he’d taken on other reggae classics. If Johnny Cash can do Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, and Beck, there’s absolutely no reason to think that Willie Nelson couldn’t visit the works of Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, or even Bob Marley and make them his own.
Unfortunately, however, Countryman doesn’t give him that chance.