Review: Willie Nelson Breathes New Life into Some Old Favorites on ‘Bluegrass’ 

Nelson and friends put a bluegrass shine on a dozen of his original compositions on this new studio album.
Willie Nelson, Bluegrass (Columbia Legacy)

Ain’t it funny how time slips away? Fifty years ago, Willie Nelson was on the verge of a Nashville breakthrough, recording his tune “Sad Songs and Waltzes” (from the album Shotgun Wille) on a still-shiny Trigger [his then-new Martin N-20 nylon-string], while Jimmy Day played weeping pedal steel in the background. Fast-forward to the present, more than 100 albums later, and Nelson is giving his picking fingers—and a battered but intact Trigger—a well-deserved rest. Instead of leaning on a band of Texas outlaws, he’s tapped bassist Barry Bales and banjoist Ron Block (from Alison Krauss and Union Station), rounding out their sound with Rob Ickes (dobro), Josh Martin (steel-string acoustic) and Bobby Terry (nylon-string), and instead of writing new songs, he’s reaching deep into his back catalog.  


The Bluegrass version of “Sad Songs and Waltzes” begins with a fiddle intro that comes within striking distance of “Tennessee Waltz,” then adds a fill on dobro that smoothly guides the tune from the V chord to the I. That’s when Nelson takes over, and no matter how worn his voice has become, and no matter how many times he’s sung this, his delivery has never been better. His phrasing, that seemingly effortless meeting place of country and jazz, takes its time to rise, fade, swoop, whisper, breathe, reassure, pause, explain, and simply and quietly share the drama of a “true song as real as my tears.” 

Again and again, that’s what this album does, from “Bloody Mary Morning” to “Yesterday’s Wine,” showing Nelson’s increasing mastery, the careless precision that grows from a lifetime of trying to find his place between song and speech. It’s not really a band record—Nelson is home in Austin while everyone else is recording in Nashville—but it brings out the best in these musicians too, especially Ickes, who gets the lion’s share of the solos, gliding smoothly over the changes as he remakes himself into the sound of Nelson’s other voice. 

Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz

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