If you have heard some foot-tapping from heaven in recent days, it was probably music legends Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley enjoying Willie Nelson’s latest release Bluegrass, named after the genre which made them famous.
But they will surely appreciate that this is not the high-lonesome-sound bluegrass that Monroe seemingly invented and Stanley helped define. Rather this is “Williegrass.”
As he has done in many of his previous 150 albums – yes this is his 151st release – Willie Nelson has taken a particular genre, whether it be jazz or soul, and manipulated it to stamp his own unique identity on the sound.
In this case he has chosen 12 numbers from his own astonishing song-writing catalogue, stretching back more than 60 years, and painted them with a bluegrass brush. And he has done so effortlessly with long-time producer Buddy Cannon and some of the best acoustic musicians available. Indeed, it is the mandolin of veteran Dan Tyminski, the dobro of Rob Ickes and Aubrey Haynie's fiddle which so wonderfully compliment Willie's distinctive tonsil-infused vocals throughout this inspiring collection.
While this dozen does include big Willie numbers, like his anthem “On the Road Again” and the country-outlaw hit “A Good Hearted Woman,” many are also somewhat obscure Willie compositions seemingly lost in albums from the early 1970’s when he was searching for the right record label which would give him the creative freedom he sought.
To fully appreciate what Willie is trying to achieve and how spectacularly he does so, it is necessary to trawl through the originals and contrast them to his modern grassy makeover.
He wrote “On the Road Again” for Honeysuckle Rose, the 1980 film in which he starred. It would reach #1 on the C & W singles chart and win Best Country Song at the 53rd Grammy awards. The original is so instilled as a Willie song, it might seem impossible to reinvent? But Willie does his best, nicely allowing the dobro of Ickes and Ron Block’s banjo to stamp their distinctive marks.
“A Good Hearted Woman” was co-written – during a poker game - with Waylon Jennings. It would prove more of a Waylon song than one of Willie’s, though their somewhat-concocted duet would be a hit and become synonymous with the outlaw country movement. Willie takes individual ownership here with a very unrestrained, almost colloquial, version, aided and abetted by more inventive banjo. It gets an extended five-minute treatment and is worth every second!
“You left Me A Long Long Time Ago” goes back, way back to 1972’s The Willie Way, his last album with RCA before his much-publicised deal with Atlantic Records. The original was very reverb, with piano and steel guitar adornment. His 2023 version is brilliantly laid back, largely because Willie vocals are somewhat more inventive, helped by wonderful harmonies from Wyatt Beard, and father-daughter Buddy and Melonie Cannon.
But you need to delve even deeper into Willie’s vast catalogue to find the closing track “Man With the Blues.” It was first released in 1959, the second single of his career. It was re-recorded for a 1976 album and got more exposure when it was the opening track to his high-profile release Country Music which is probably the closest in acoustic style to Bluegrass. Comparing the very-latest version of “Man With the Blues” with the original is a must do. It can be found on the 2021 compilation Texas Willie. Enough said!
One Willie song that remains somewhat under the radar is “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” It appeared on 1973’s Shotgun Willie, his first release with Atlantic Records, and was overshadowed by the success of the title track and another song on the album, “Whiskey River.” It is refreshing that Willie has resurrected it on Bluegrass for it must rank as one of his finest lyrical compositions, certainly up there with “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Times Slips Away.”
The song cleverly relates a songwriter’s unsuccessful attempt to use a song to get even with a cheating heart. One might wonder if this is the stuff of bluegrass? Willie wastes no time making it so, with Haynie’s wonderful fiddle providing an inviting introduction to this stunning opening stanza:
I’m writing a song all about you
A true song as real as my tears
But you’ve no need to fear it
Cause no one will hear it
Cause sad songs and waltzes
Aren’t selling this year.
Let us hope Bluegrass is selling this year. No one deserves it better than the 90-year-old genius that is Willie Nelson.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation