CD Review of Songbird by Willie Nelson

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starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Lost Highway
Released: 2006
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Frankly, we can’t even be bothered to count back and figure out what number album Songbird is for Willie Nelson. Suffice to say he’s got a ton of records in his back catalog, this is the latest, and if history holds true, it’ll only hold that title for a year, tops, before he puts out another one. This is also another case where Willie has a more current musician, one who’s been heavily influenced by his work, taking him under his wing and steering him behind the scenes. In previous instances, that position has been taken by Daniel Lanois (Teatro) and Don Was (Across the Borderline); this time around, it’s Ryan Adams.

To look at his catalog of work, Adams is a pretty reasonable choice, especially taking into account the pair of albums he released in 2005 – Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights – but there’s still reason to enter the proceedings with a certain degree of trepidation. For all the utterly valid praise he receives as a songwriter, Adams is equally notorious for his tendency to get sloppy; as such, there’s concern as to how he’ll approach the task of producing Willie.

Fortunately, Adams proves himself more than up to the task; Songbird is the best album Nelson’s released since the aforementioned Teatro...and to give you some perspective, that was 18 years ago.

It’s obvious that Adams is well-educated in Willie’s back catalog; the sound of the disc harks back to Willie’s oft-lauded work on Atlantic Records, so much so that Adams had Willie re-record one of his best songs from the era, “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” While some might say it’s lazy to fall back on re-recording your own material, it must be said that Willie sounds just as good singing it now as he did in 1973 on Shotgun Willie. The take on “Rainy Day Blues” that opens the album is also solid, but given that Willie re-recorded it as recently as 2000 (for Milk Cow Blues), it’s hard to imagine Adams couldn’t come up with another, less-heard pick from Willie’s substantial songwriting catalog to kick things off. Later in the disc, however, Nelson – backed by Adams’ band, the Cardinals – takes “We Don’t Run,” from his underrated 1996 album, Spirit, and ups the twang factor considerably from his original performance of the song.

Although Adams and Nelson each wrote a new song for Songbird – “Blue Hotel” and “Back to Earth,” respectively – the album’s song selection consists predominantly of covers of other artists’ material, much as it has on Willie’s previous releases. Still, the choices are unique and varied. The title track, a Christine McVie composition from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, has probably the glossiest production on the disc, but it shimmers just right. Versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Gram Parsons’ “$1000 Wedding” come off solidly as well; although the former has been recorded by everyone from Bono to Chris Botti, here it’s unquestionably transformed into a Willie Nelson song. Even Willie’s wonderful version of “Stella Blue” is just about enough to make you want to seek out the Grateful Dead original. Of the aforementioned new originals, Nelson’s is the better of the pair; with acoustic guitar gently moving the chorus along and pedal steel powering the verses, “Back to Earth” is a lovely, melancholy addition to Nelson’s catalog.

Although Willie’s rarely been out of the public eye, one could still readily argue that Songbird is his comeback album...and may he continue to come back again and again.

~Will Harris