In the pantheon of artists who can be truly called ageless, Willie Nelson, who turns 77 on Friday, sits among the very few. But locating the pick of Nelson's bountiful recorded output is far from an easy task.
Amid countless anthologies and hit collections that pour forth from labels that recorded Nelson through the years are standouts including the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro (Island, 1998) and the Ryan Adams-produced Songbird (Lost Highway, 2006). Both strip the singer's music down to elemental, but not always rootsy, essentials. Those records also mixed vintage Nelson originals with well-chosen covers that let the under-appreciated jazz phrasing of his singing mingle with undeniable Lone Star country inspiration.
This brings us to the unceremoniously titled Country Music, a new record that marks a perhaps inevitable collaboration for Nelson — an alliance with roots-music entrepreneur T Bone Burnett. Unlike Teatro or Songbird, which were heavily atmospheric records favoring assimilations of country and contemporary sounds, Country Music is just that — a collection of regal country waltzes, laments and celebrations, along with darker, brittle acoustic explorations that mine the pre-country terrain championed for so long by Burnett.
The results are quietly majestic, interpretations of tunes by Hank Williams, Doc Watson, Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and George Jones with crisply understated musicianship by some of Burnett's favored hired hands (most notably, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Dennis Crouch), one of Nelson's most trusted band mates (harmonica ace Mickey Raphael) and a host of extraordinary Nashville heavy hitters (Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale). All help accent the album's lean, drummer-less sound.
Something luminous emerges when the livelier moments of Country Music swing into action. The decades-old Nelson original Man With the Blues, full as it is of hapless despondency, sounds as if it could ignite a dance hall in a heartbeat. Ditto for the more gently propulsive strut of Watson's Freight Train Blues. Finer still is a version of Pistol Packin' Mama that steers clear of its World War II-era blueprint version by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters for a light but robust honky-tonk charm initiated by Crouch's playful bass support.
But Country Music really lights up when its songs go dark. Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, in particular, has the sort of Appalachian ambience that Nelson seldom gets to work within. On Travis' immortal — and, in the wake of the recent West Virginia mining tragedy, topical — Dark as a Dungeon, Nelson and Burnett strike an arresting balance between Country Music's blissful, bluesy traditionalism and a worldly reality that is older, colder and vastly more sobering.