I guess the real question here is: How much leeway do you give a legend? I suppose you give them all the slack they require, but still... The legend I refer to is Willie Nelson, and the slack required is in reference to his newest album, Countryman, which is Willie’s attempt at a reggae album. I can see you’re a bit intrigued; (steel guitars in a reggae setting?) as was I when I first sat down to listen. You’re probably wondering – is that Willie doing country covers of reggae tunes or reggae versions of country tunes? The answer is, regrettably, more of the latter.
There are many, many problems with Countryman, and at the risk of looking like I’m piling on someone who is undoubtedly a first-ballot hall of famer in American music, I’ll keep it short. Reggae requires a certain sound, a certain voice, a certain cadence to make it sound right – it cannot be done by just anyone. Nelson has a distinctive sound and voice and cadence that made him what he is today, but it does not make for listenable reggae music. The result is an album full of Willie singing typical aching-heart country songs with a generic boom-chukka-boom reggae rhythm behind him. 90% of the tracks, many of them originals, sound identical, and the CD cover’s claim of “[merging] the gospel and soul spirit found in both reggae and country” never comes to fruition.
With all that going for it, Countryman makes the mistake of pointing out its weaknesses. On one track, a cover of Johnny and June Carter Cash’s “I’m a Worried Man,” Willie invites fellow legend Toots Hibbert to join in trading verses. The contrast is stark: one of these men was born to sing reggae and one wasn’t. Another track, perhaps the best of the bunch, is a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.” Here we get a glimpse of an album that could have been - one full of Nelson reimagining reggae classics. This version is a beautifully naked cover, a touching rendition where Willie Nelson makes the song his own, a country classic.
The cover of the CD features a marijuana leaf motif, and there is no doubt about what Nelson and company were smoking when they decided that a reggae album of this nature was a good idea. Willie has earned the right to make a mistake or two, but if you’re going to partake in Countryman yourself, be sure to have your pipe packed and ready to go.
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