"It's a different sound than any other album I've ever made," says Willie Nelson
. He's talking about Songbird
, his new release for Lost Highway, produced by the young prolific singer/songwriter Ryan Adams
. "It's more electric, there's more rhythm and more production. That's all because of Ryan, his band, and his ideas."
"I knew our coming together was going to be something different," Nelson continues. "We came from extremely different places, and we didn't always agree. But it was an experiment, and now that it's done, I think it's real strong."
Songbird charts new territory for this musical icon in several ways. He was recording in a new location (Manhattan's LoHo Studios) with a new band (The Cardinals
). He tackled an ambitious slate of songs across a range of styles - from Leonard Cohen
's "Hallelujah" to Gram Parsons
' "$1000 Wedding," from Harlan Howard's "Yours Love" to the album's title track, taken from Fleetwood Mac
's landmark Rumours album.
Most notably, though, Songbird is a collaboration between living legend Nelson and producer Adams, one of the most talented young musicians in any genre. Since emerging with pioneering alt-country band Whiskeytown, singer/songwriter Adams has been on a restless quest to explore all of the music he loves. In just a short time, his recordings have ranged from blazing punk rock to old-school honky-tonk, all shot through with his signature passion and intensity.
Pairing up with Willie brought Adams back to his country roots - but the project that resulted is far from a throwback. Instead, this cross-generational duo of outlaws came up with a batch of eleven songs that showcases Nelson's incomparable interpretive skills, set within arrangements featuring a rocked-up, jagged edge.
Songbird truly feels like a band album, though the spotlight never leaves Nelson's inimitable voice. And as spare and modern, even dissonant, as the sound sometimes gets, the prominent use of pedal steel guitar and harmonica (played by Nelson's longtime cohort Mickey Raphael) keep things firmly rooted in country tradition.
"It was a pretty targeted list of songs," says Nelson, "and then we just used the ones that worked out the best. Things like '$1000 Wedding' and 'Hallelujah,' those were some I hadn't tried to sing before. But they were all just good songs that I wanted to do."
Nelson adds that while some of the ideas for the rock covers came from Adams (including "Stella Blue," a Grateful Dead
song written by Jerry Garcia
and Robert Hunter
), he felt confident with all of the selections. "I wasn't surprised at how good the songs are - I knew how good something like 'Songbird' was," he says. "But you're always a little hesitant to do covers on songs that have been done so well."
To find their own way into this set of songs, Nelson and Adams first had to find the right comfort zone in the studio. They share a record label, and Adams has opened for Nelson on occasion and participated in a Nelson birthday and tribute concert in 2002, which included a duet of the reggae anthem "The Harder They Come" at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Nelson knew, however, that this project was "coming from a different direction," and would require an even more open approach.
Songbird is a testament to a great artist who, at age 73, continues to push himself and find new challenges for his music after recording countless albums over the last five decades.
Nelson offers special praise to the Cardinals - Neal Casal (piano, guitar), Jon Graboff (pedal steel), Brad Pemberton (drums), and Catherine Popper (bass) - who have worked as Adams's touring and recording band for the last few years. "We all got along fine," says Nelson. "They were as good as you could ask for - and Ryan stood out a lot, too. He's a great guitar player, really brought a lot as a musician."
As Nelson recalls, the recording of the aching prayer to fidelity "Yours Love" - written by country's immortal Harlan Howard, and probably best known in Waylon Jennings
's hit version from 1968 - was prompted by steel player Graboff. "He's a big fan of (famed Nelson band member) Jimmy Day," says Nelson, "and he knew just what kind of feel to put on it."
In addition to the covers, Nelson and Adams each wrote a new song specifically for Songbird. Nelson's acoustic "Back To Earth" could easily have appeared on one of his timeless albums, while Adams contributed the country-blues gem "Blue Hotel." They also recorded new renditions of three Nelson classics - "Sad Songs and Waltzes" (from Shotgun Willie
), the opening "Rainy Day Blues" (from Me And The Drummer
), and "We Don't Run" (from Spirit
One of the project's most striking recordings is the closing track, a dark, ominous version of "Amazing Grace." It might seem impossible to imagine a new way to hear this, of all songs, but Nelson and Adams have created an entirely original take, with underpinnings of fear and menace. Nelson says that he's not sure whose idea it was to tackle the mother of all spirituals, "but when we went into it, Ryan started playing it that way. That arrangement is so unusual - I never would have come up with that, but it came out so great."
Recent years have seen Willie Nelson tackle a number of thematic albums - a reggae project (Countryman
), an album of jazz instrumentals (Night & Day
), a tribute to songwriter Cindy Walker (You Don't Know Me
). Asked whether Songbird has a running theme of its own, the Red Headed Stranger has a quick reply.
"It'll always be the Ryan Adams project, as far as I'm concerned," he says. "He put together the songs and the sound, it was his band - he was really the main guy here."
Preview some of the album HERE