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Willie Nelson: Milk Cow Blues

Pedernales/FreeFalls FF 7002 2

Don Braid

Cover Image

Before Willie Nelson cashes in his chips, or the U.S. taxman does it for him, he seems determined to cross every musical boundary and fold every style within the Austin city limits. From the great crossover standards album Stardust in 1978 (was it that long ago?), to the aching country activism of Across the Borderline in 1993, and now a pure blues album, Milk Cow Blues, Nelson shows an astonishing ability to sink into every worthwhile popular style of the age.

He somehow does this while changing his own style only imperceptibly. Like Frank Sinatra, who could drift like a wraith from bossa nova to soft jazz to blaring big band, Nelson is always instantly recognizable. On Milk Cow Blues, he slides into the blues so smoothly that he reminds me of Sinatra on one of his greatest albums, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. In the service of bossa nova, Sinatra faded back until he was almost another instrument in the orchestra, yet by doing this made his own identity even more powerful. That's Willie and his beloved gut-string Martin guitar on Milk Cow Blues - a servant who cares more about the music than himself, and so achieves something close to individual greatness.

I'm not usually much of a blues fan, but I find myself listening to this album time and again for its inventive blend of blues and early rock echoes (The Thrill is Gone, a heartbreaking take on the old ballad). Also wonderful, Nelson's rich duets with some of the great blues stars, including B.B. King and Dr. John. Lush and beautifully balanced HDCD sound, too. Like Across the Borderline, this is a duets album, but nobody is leaping up and down for jacket credit. You will strain your eyes to read that B.B. King appears twice, on The Thrill is Gone and Night Life (yet another superb cut).

Nelson's guitar contribution, as always, is astonishing. Clapton, Knopfler, shove aside - I find Nelson as fine a guitarist as either, and a better singer than both! It always amazes me that so many fans who love Nelson's songs are only dimly aware that he even plays guitar. Maybe that's because his Martin has almost become part of his voice. As Nelson's friend Ray Benson observed in the liner notes to Night and Day in 1999: "Willie's guitar playing and sound are as distinctive as his voice and remarkably similar in tone and texture."

I cannot let this go without a further mention of Night and Day, my favorite Nelson album (even though Willie doesn't sing a note!). Nelson created a new instrumental music here - a wild blend of West Texas country, honky-tonk, standards and jazz. The introduction to the title song is as original as anything I've ever heard (think of the first time you heard the Eagles startling intro to Hotel California on the reunion album, Hell Freezes Over). The musicians - on violin, harmonica, mandolin, guitar, acoustic guitar, bass and drums - are hugely energetic and individual, yet mesh perfectly to drive each song along. I shiver every time I hear my favorite cut, All the Things You Are, yet I still can't figure out if it's carefully planned or entirely improvised.

This man's art runs deep. With Milk Cow Blues, the thrill is far from gone.

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