Wednesday, August 24, 2005


Willie Nelson Sings the Kingston Phone Book

One of pop criticism's most durable cliches goes like this: Willie Nelson could sing the phone book. Meaning, he could sing anything, your most worthless receipts, like those you get when you've paid $2.70 a gallon for gas with a credit card at a self-serve pump. Why do I keep these receipts? I do not know.

Anyway, so Willie Nelson can sing the phone book. But any phone book? I'm sure he can sing the Austin phone book, the San Antonio phone book, the Kerrville, Texas phone book. But when he decided to sing the Kingston, Jamaica phone book—that is, make a reggae album—it was easy to wonder if Willie was dialing for disaster.

There were apparently a few false starts over the years to the album "Countryman" (Lost Highway). And the first time through, it was Willie, just lose that number. But after a few listens, the wisdom of the concept—or rather, the wisdom of Willie—kicked in. The best part of the blend is the way the solid reggae rhythm section (oh, I'd write "riddim" but that is so corny!) contrasts with the steel guitar and harmonica: a sweet blend. (Check "Something to Think About" and "How Long is Forever").
They immediately reminded me of the most audacious reggae/country move of the 1970s: When Toots & the Maytals, the greatest soul reggae vocal group of all-time, covered "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Yes, the John Denver song. They replaced "West Virginia" with "Jamaica," of course, but they otherwise just did their Maytals thing with it, and it is a lasting performance.

So it was great to see that Willie shrewdly invited Toots Hibbert to sing "I'm A Worried Man." It's a win-win proposition: Either Toots rescues the song (not necessary) or Willie and Toots just relax together on a tune that doesn't require anything except their natural selves. Willie then sings "The Harder They Come" as a West Texas hymn, and throws perhaps a little too much wah-wah in the direction of "Sitting in Limbo." But against all odds, the project works better than anyone (except for possibly Willie) thought it would.

(c) Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. Touch base: xxxw2robins@mac.comxxx. (Delete the x's, of course).

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