Willie Nelson Countryman Review

Released 2005.  

BBC Review

It’s Willie Nelson’s long lost reggae album. And contrary to what those words...

Sue Keogh 2004

The words 'Willie Nelson's making a reggae album' would normally elicit a more brief response: somebody stop him. One thinks of failed attempts by other country artists at genre-bending, like that dance remix of Lonestar's "Amazed", that bloke rapping on Gretchen Wilson's records and the sheer bloody nerve of Shania Twain to bung a sitar on the remix of the Up! album and call it 'world music'. And putting classic Willie Nelson tunes through a reggae filter is an experiment that could have gone horribly wrong...but instead it sounds simply glorious.

Reggae is often called Jamaica's country music, and the more you think about it, the more you notice the similarities between the two genres; the tales of the working man, the spiritual leanings, the pure and simple melodies. And to make it clear that he was getting into the spirit of it all, Nelson apologises in the sleevenotes for forgetting to thank everyone, but they were probably too blunted to remember. And the red, green and gold album cover proudly displays a large marijuana leaf; such a shame that he had to bow to the current culture of censorship in America and release a herb-free alternative version especially for Wal-Mart.

The project has actually been on the back burner for ten years, and was originally an idea cooked up with producer Don Was and Chris Blackwell, founder of Bob Marley's record label Island. Backed by Jamaican musicians, many of whom were in Pete Tosh's band, it's mostly Willie's own songs, with "How Long Is Forever", the old Brenda Lee duet "You Left Me A Long Time Ago" and "Darkness On The Face Of The Earth" in particular sounding great in their new environment.

He has chosen wisely with the other material too. Toots Hibbert, who with his version of "Country Roads" has travelled this path before, adds his rich vocals to "I'm A Worried Man", which Johnny Cash wrote when lived in Jamaica. Hibbert's daughter Lieba Thomas joins Pam Hall to add exquisite backing vocals to a triumphant rendering of the Jimmy Cliff favourite "The Harder They Come".

What reggae or country purists would make of this record isn't clear, but it's just possible Willie's too blunted to care...

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