Album Review – Willie Nelson’s “Bluegrass”

In 90 years of life, some 75 years in music, and around a hundred original albums of one version or another, Willie Nelson has just about done it all. But he hadn’t done a bluegrass record, or really even a bluegrass song henceforth, save for maybe his revved-up version of “Bloody Mary Morning.” His primary influences were always Western Swing, Django Reinhardt, and the classic country songwriters that came before him like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams.

But with the way bluegrass is such a hot commodity these days, and Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings are instilling new life in the subgenre—including a recent collaboration Strings did with Willie called “California Sober“—why not cut a record of some of your classics done bluegrass style for posterity? So Willie once again partners up with producer Buddy Cannon, and they enlisted a bunch of super pickers to go to work.

Willie Nelson wasn’t very bluegrass before, and even now when he intentionally sets out to make a bluegrass album he’s still only kinda bluegrass at best. Since the song material is country standards, some of the songs utilize waltz and shuffle beats—and Willie’s unique phrasing isn’t really intuitive to the bluegrass discipline—it’s just as fair to label this as an acoustic album as it is something akin to Flatt & Scruggs.

That’s more of an observation than a criticism though, because the pickin’ is still really great, and so are the songs, and so is Willie’s singing, despite the advanced age. The album just doesn’t have the tempo or gas you often expect from a bluegrass record, and for completely understandable reasons. Perhaps if they had chosen bluegrass standards as opposed to Willie standards, our brains would pick up better on the bluegrass intentions. But what you get here is still not bad at all.

This doesn’t feel like one of those late career masterworks that Willie has been releasing here lately, even if it goes on to win a Grammy award, which it very well might. It’s one of those records you may listen to a few times and enjoy just fine, but only return to a few select tracks. As mentioned previously, “Bloody Mary Morning” lends itself to a bluegrass treatment, and it gets a good one here. Though you may not expect it on the surface, “Still is Still Moving to Me” is straight fire when rendered in the bluegrass discipline and is worth cherry picking for any playlist.

Though the album starts off slow, the instrumentation never falters. Joining Willie on the record are an all-star cast including Rob Ickes (dobro), Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Ron Block (banjo), Josh Martin (acoustic guitar), Barry Bales (upright bass), Seth Taylor (mandolin), Bobby Terry (acoustic guitar, gut string guitar), and of course Mickey Raphael on harmonica.

If Willie Nelson wants to do a bluegrass record, who’s going to quibble with him? It may not be 100% bluegrass or or new and original material. But it’s bluegrass enough, and it’s Willie Nelson, which means it’s still pretty damn good.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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