Review: Willie Nelson, Bluegrass
Late-career genre exercise disappoints
Ten words could suffice in reviewing Willie Nelson's Bluegrass: "It's better than his reggae album, but not by much."
Perhaps it's a reductive comparison, but both are later-career works where Nelson commits to a genre that he, at 90, predates. 2005's Countryman is corny, culturally ill-advised, and uncomplimentary to his singing style, but it's WTF enough that it's an interesting listen. In contrast, Bluegrass is an overall good-sounding album that never rises above its premise of Nelson playing his songs with an A-list bluegrass ensemble behind him.
Still, the selections are exceptional – a career-spanning tracklist of songs where he's mostly heartbroken and locked out of his house. "Man With the Blues," his second-ever single from 1959, is a treat to hear re-recorded. And Willie's singing is especially on point and never rote, though not stacking high and lonesome harmonies seems like a missed opportunity. The band – including Alison Krauss-lifers Ron Block, Barry Bales, and Dan Tyminski, plus fiddler Aubrey Haynie and dobro ace Rob Ickes – is top-notch. Ickes especially shines on the session, really digging in on "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" from Teatro and Shotgun Willie's "Sad Songs and Waltzes."
And while the instrumentalists achieve dynamic liftoff on a couple concert staples – the minor key mysticism of "Still Is Still Moving to Me" and "Good Hearted Woman" with Block's banjo leading the way – the playing feels as safe and forgettable as the album title. Not in the same league as, say, 2009's Willie and the Wheel, Bluegrass lacks the magic of either a great Willie Nelson record or a great bluegrass record.