Willie Nelson will never be anyone’s idea of a reggae singer. It doesn’t matter how much weed he smokes or how long his (non-dreaded) hair is or that he’s sometimes been an outlaw, he’s always going to be a country singer from Texas.
But—who knew?—Willie Nelson apparently loves reggae, and 10 years ago he decided to do something about it: he cut this album. His label boss at the time, Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell, thought it was a great idea, and so did Don Was, who initially produced it. But then Blackwell got the boot and the Willie Nelson reggae album languished on a shelf. Nelson and his fans wondered if it would ever come out; some began to doubt its very existence. Only now has it finally materialized, finished up by producer Richard Feldman and released on Lost Highway, home to fellow hipsters Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams and Ryan Adams, among others.
So, was it worth the wait? Well, let’s reiterate: Willie Nelson is not a reggae singer. He’s a country singer from Texas who just happens to like reggae music (and good for him for being as open-minded as he is!). His skills as an interpreter are so unimpeachable that he can sing just about anything and transform it into a Willie Nelson song, but Countryman is not a reggae album, nor is it even close to being a great Willie Nelson album.
In fact, it’s not very good at all. Cutting it probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but whoever decided to keep it out of circulation had the smartest idea. It’s not quite clear who exactly the intended audience for this might even be: Reggae purists will dismiss it out of hand as a wacky, ultimately failed Babylon cash-in, while Nelson’s hardcore audience, although extremely supportive of his dalliances, will likely find the groove difficult to pick up.
Possibly because there isn’t much of one: While Nelson and his handlers throw a watered-down one-drop riddim, a solid enough bass thump and some faux I-Threes background voices behind Nelson’s trademark warbling without making it seem just plain weird, it’s a fusion that doesn’t fuse well. More than anything, it confuses. There’s something about an early-Wailers-style wah-wah guitar bucking up against a weeping pedal steel that just falls into the nice-try-but-let’s-not-try-it-again category.
That isn’t to say it’s without any merits at all. For one thing, Willie Nelson is a one-of-a-kind vocal stylist, and his singing in spots on Countryman (which takes its name from a 1982 reggae film and, one guesses, someone thought was appropriate for the project) is quite impassioned and elegant.
Nelson tripped into his own back catalog for some of the album’s better material: “Undo The Right,” a song Nelson co-wrote with country singer Hank Cochran, and “I’ve Just Destroyed The World,” written with Ray Price, manage to overcome the weak arrangements, and both “Darkness On The Face Of The Earth” and “One In A Row” exhibit the loosey-goosey playfulness that Nelson commands so well when he’s not venturing into Rasta country.
But in the end it’s the Johnny Cash cover and one of two Jimmy Cliffs that do the best job of salvaging Countryman from the heap. The former, “I’m A Worried Man,” is mostly notable for Toots Hibbert’s co-lead vocal. The Toots and the Maytals frontman (who, after all, once covered John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”) provides the grit that the song requires—Nelson is as soulful a singer as country music has produced, but it’s Hibbert’s familiar funky growl that temporarily elevates Countryman from being elevator reggae.
Why precisely Nelson chose not one but two of Cliff’s landmark numbers from The Harder They Come, the title track and “Sitting In Limbo,” is anyone’s guess, but that decision was one-half mistake and one-half good idea. “The Harder They Come” as voiced by Nelson serves as living proof that this cla