Willie Nelson, George Strait, and Rodney Crowell
Reviewed by Christopher Gray, Fri., July 29, 2005
Countryman (Lost Highway)
Somewhere Down in Texas (MCA)
The Outsider (Columbia)
Is it better to be prolific or profound? Surely Willie Nelson knows, but he's either forgotten or doesn't care. His 31st release since 2000, Countryman's reggae is hardly radical; culturally, Nelson's been the Lone Star Bob Marley for decades. The music's rock-steady tempos fit his leisurely vocals and free-range finger-picking like an old bandanna. Bolstered by glorious gospel backup vox, Jimmy Cliff immortals "Sitting in Limbo" and "The Harder They Come" are the pick of this litter, even though undulating remakes of his own "How Long Is Forever," "I've Just Destroyed the World," and "Undo the Right" illustrate Nelson's aversion to settling down. Meanwhile, Somewhere Down in Texas, George Strait is clearly on autopilot. His 25th studio effort in 24 years is a listless assortment of soccer-mom sops ("She Let Herself Go"), romantic platitudes ("You'll Be There"), and stuff he's said a thousand times before ("If the Whole World Was a Honky Tonk"). The frisky "High Tone Woman," Merle Haggard's "The Seashores of Old Mexico," and Lee Ann Womack duet "Good News, Bad News" atone somewhat, mostly because Strait actually sounds like he cares. As noted at SXSW 05 ("SXSW Records," Music, March 11, 2005), if anything, Rodney Crowell might care too much. Feeling his oats after critical smashes The Houston Kid and Fate's Right Hand, Crowell deftly balances caustic wordplay and sly humor on The Outsider's political rockers "Gimme Gimme Gimme" and "Don't Get Me Started." Unfortunately, "Ignorance Is the Enemy" becomes heavy-handed even before his and Emmylou Harris' spoken monologues (just skip to their Dylan duet "Shelter From the Storm"), but his sentimentality hits the mark elsewhere. The lovely "Glasgow Girl" evokes The Joshua Tree's quieter moments, and "We Can't Turn Back" contains a wee bit of Irish charm itself. "God forgive us our insanity," Crowell sings, "and we'll keep pressing on." They'd better all three of them.