Preconceived Notions: I wish CGR was here for this one. 1.) B/c he’s a redheaded not so-stranger and B.) His love of Tom Waits is probably only surpassed by his love of country music – and that review might have been special. Anyway, I actually do like a fair amount of country – Merle Haggard, Cash, Hank Williams Sr, Waylon Jennings etc…you know, actual country music as opposed to the pop/soft rock of the past 25 years or so that’s passing itself off as country. I’ve never really had strong feelings on Willie Nelson – when I was younger I used to confuse him and John Denver a lot…for some reason…
After Listening: The “concept” of this concept album is strong story, but its execution sort of misses. Since the thing is so short I went back and re-listened to the album with the wiki story breakdown. That helped a little, since the album is so lyrically dependent if you’re not focusing on them – like I wasn’t 1st time around (music guy 1st and foremost always) you can miss a lot. Musically there are songs that shine on this, and songs that disappoint. The finer moments have some excellent harmonica, mandolin work and classic country guitar. I think an important thing to remember about this album is that basically it’s a collection of old country standards, that Willie didn’t write – he arranged them, but I don’t believe he strayed too far from the originals. So what you actually have on this record, is Willie as a cut and paste storyteller writing a few original pieces to tie them all together. As a result, the less fine moments of this record feel very generic. I’m not a huge Willie Nelson fan, his voice has to be on something I’m interested in for me to listen…songs like “Always on My Mind” and “My Heroes have Always been Cowboys” feel uniquely his, but you don’t get something like that on this record. On this thing, musically you get mostly some well played, but unmemorable songs that sort of bury the classical storytelling effort.
Favorite Tracks: “Just as I am” – Wiki has this on the original as only :26, my version seemed to be about 1:40…so…I’ll take it, believe me. Some nice clean soft piano…bright and slow, with an accordion backdrop, an instrumental, an original, and something different enough to stand out – which was important on this. If you follow it in the frame of the story, it’s played just after The Preacher kills his last victim. So in the sense of the story it appears to be the transition piece between his descent and ascent.
“Blue eyes Crying in the Rain” – The guitar work on this is the best on the record. It has that open-horse trotting on the open range pace, that sort of bobs and is perfect for a story-telling atmosphere. Near the end, there are some very quick and clean guitar lines that are placed so well it doesn’t take away from that generally open feel.
“Bandera” – The guitar and harmonica interplay on this is very nice….while the piano gives it an open floor to sort of wander around on. Might help that this was another instrumental. Still the 2nd half where the piano and the bass are allowed to go off on their own for a bit showcases some serious chops.
Least Favorite Tracks: All of the “Time of the Preacher” tracks, and this to me symbolizes my issues with the album. As some of the few pieces Nelson actually wrote from scratch on this thing, they are vital to the story’s cohesion. They reveal the infidelity, the start of the killings, and then the transition to recovery. But…musically they are weak, Nelson’s voice sounds particularly grating on them, and lyrically they are very clumsily written. It’s a product of having to tie together songs not written for exclusively for this album, and it shows b/c they are just glorified intros – as if Willie is song speaking an intro to a song at a concert…like “ok now we’re gonna do the one about killing” etc. Don’t like it…at all….would rather he just used the songs he was going to use and put them in order and let the listener get out of the song placements what he or she would.
How much credit should Willie get for this album? Apparently many, many people feel like that answer is a ton. I feel a little differently. Musically it’s solid enough for country, which is generally a lyrically and vocally dominated style – indeed parts of it are expertly played (major guitar props), but it is tough to pick standout musical moments….and as a sum it feels slightly underwhelming. When your album is half other artists’ standards, you really need to make that other half pretty special to produce a signature work. Nelson tries successfully on instrumentals, but then fails pretty openly on the narrative dependant originals. Willie has better work, and I haven’t even heard that much of him and feel confident in that statement. Despite the excellent message that killing your wife for infidelity and a stranger for touching your horse, will ultimately lead to spiritual peace and a happy ending….I just can’t grade this out too high.