Willie Nelson

By - Nov 1st, 2006 02:52 pm

By Jon M. Gilbertson

For anyone who loved Willie Nelson’s 1978 classic Stardust – the country legend’s first successful attempt to interpret truly great songwriters – the prospect of Songbird is mouthwatering. Not only is he taking on more contemporary tracks by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Gram Parsons, but he’s also getting assistance from Ryan Adams and Adams’ backup band, the Cardinals.

While Adams often comes off like an arrogant prick, he does share key qualities with Nelson, such as a fondness for recording as many albums as he possibly can and a broad yet discriminating love for any music that’s good. Adams also produces Songbird unobtrusively, unlike some studio mavens (Daniel Lanois, for example) to whom Nelson has previously given relatively free rein.

With the Cardinals alternating between sheer brawn and dulcet subtlety, and with regular harmonica player Mickey Raphael accompanying him, Nelson glides through a raucous take on Parsons’ “$1,000 Wedding,” a simple gospel-hush version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a perfectly pitched waltz-time cover of Harlan Howard’s “Yours Love” with an easy grace unmatched by anyone this side of Tony Bennett.

Adams and the Cardinals set up a kind of consistency on Songbird that allows a few of Nelson’s own compositions and even a new one by Adams, “Blue Hotel,” to sit well alongside the interpretations. If this album isn’t quite the achievement that Stardust was, and if Nelson’s voice isn’t entirely what it once was, Songbird still offers the sound of an American icon taking unmistakable pleasure in his craft, and using it on the art of others.

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