Musically speaking, there seems very little that Willie Nelson can’t accomplish. Fresh from a string-laden project that saw him once again mining the Great American Songbook, here he returns to his country roots with absolutely stellar results.
Make no mistake, though – this isn’t ‘modern’ country, all big hats, big guitars, and booming drums. This is old-timey stuff, virtually all acoustic – indeed, it’s almost as much a bluegrass collection as it is country, at least by current definitions, though Buddy Miller adds subtle strains of electric guitar to most tracks. That’s it for electricity, though, and there are no drums to be found at all. The sound is dominated by acoustic guitars and fiddle, with mandolin and banjo adding texture. Also on hand is Willie’s old sidekick, harmonicist extraordinaire Mickey Raphael, a master of understated accompaniment.
With the exception of Willie’s own “Man With The Blues” that kicks things off, the material is from an earlier era, tunes ideally suited to the gentle treatments they’re given here. Composer credits include the likes of Merle Travis (the ancient-sounding “Dark As A Dungeon”), Hank Williams (“House Of Gold,” a lesser-known tune that shows ol’ Hank wasn’t above plagiarizing himself – lyrics aside, it could very well be “Lost Highway”) and Doc Watson (“Freight Train Boogie,” kept on track by superb harp from Raphael). Traditional tunes include “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come,” “I Am A Pilgrim,” and the set closer, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” the one song bearing the unmistakable stamp of producer T-Bone Burnett.
Known for crafting evocative arrangements that often render production an integral element in the music – witness the moody and menacing atmosphere of “Nobody’s Fault” - Burnett maintains a pretty low profile here, allowing the purity of the instrumentation to shine through. And given the talent involved – in addition to Miller and Raphael, participants include the likes of bluegrass royalty Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Shad Cobb, and Jim Lauderdale on vocal harmonies – it would be presumptuous of any producer to get in the way. These are players who live this stuff, and it all comes out just as naturally, and seemingly as effortlessly, as breathing.