Songbird (Lost Highway)
Willie Nelson doesn’t wait for changes to arrive; he meets them halfway. This time around, he’s produced by Ryan Adams, and the result is one of the finest examples of country-rock from the rock end since Nelson’s 1973 milestone, Shotgun Willie. One track, “Sad Songs & Waltzes,” even appears on both albums and is indeed in 3/4 time. It’s a fairly acidic breakup song, and on this new take you can feel Nelson’s anger as he assures his ex that their problems won’t be exposed to the public because “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” Cleverness never goes out of style.
Much of the rest of Songbird is in a Byrdsish folk-rock style Nelson’s a natural at. The title track evokes a less-bland Tom Petty, while Shotgun Willie’s country/R&B mix rears its lovely head again on “Blue Hotel” (and yes, that choir is just what the song needs). Adams takes Nelson through different twists and turns (the power chords that invade “$1000 Wedding” come straight from left field), and Nelson sails through the material like it was meant for him all along.
Even when Nelson’s hair was short and he still made conventional Nashville Sound recordings, he always seemed like half an outsider, so it’s pointless to worry about what his traditional country audience will think. Nelson has no traditional country audience because his audience knows to expect the unexpected—just good music, big Willie–style.—James Porter