Willie Nelson Meets Reggae: Just Dreadful

Willie Nelson won't go from reggae to riches with
Willie Nelson won't go from reggae to riches with "Countryman," a misconception of an album if ever there was one. (By Jim Herrington)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Please, Willie Nelson, put down the spliff.

For the love of Jah.

Nelson's legendary tetrahydrocannabinol habit has finally done him in, clouding the music icon's judgment to the point where he found it completely sensible to record a country-reggae album -- as if steel guitar plus Steel Pulse should add up to artistic brilliance.

It most certainly did not, as Nelson's new release, "Countryman," is a pop music disaster of the highest order.

The album staggers out of the gate and never quite rights itself -- which may be why the rastafied collection of country and reggae songs sat in limbo for all these years: Conceived by producer Don Was in 1995 and completed by Nelson two years later, "Countryman" languished until label executives decided that the world really ought to hear Willie inna reggae stylee .

Thus, the Red Headed Stranger officially became the Dread Headed Stranger.

Alas, it's a bad look for the country rebel from Abbott, Tex., who was hardly in need of a musical makeover.

The opening "Do You Mind Too Much if I Don't Understand," for instance, worked perfectly fine in its old form -- as a rootsy country classic from the 1960s, when it was known as "I Just Don't Understand."

Yet producer Was had this half-baked idea that an island infusion was just what the sad song needed, and Nelson apparently agreed.

So now, his lachrymose lyrics and Robby Turner's pedal steel licks -- the very sound of heartbreak -- are paired with a jaunty reggae rhythm and soothing female harmony vocals. As a result, "I Don't Understand" has developed something of an identity crisis, coming across as both buoyant and melancholy.

Equally perplexing is the notion that Nelson's vocals are somehow compatible with a syncopated reggae rhythm. Nelson sings in a weathered warble that usually occupies the space just behind the beat; rarely will he sit right on it. In the wide-open settings of his best albums, like "Red Headed Stranger" and "Teatro," Nelson's distinctive phrasing works perfectly.

Set against a steady reggae beat, however, it sounds awkward, particularly on a dub-style version of Nelson's "Darkness on the Face of the Earth" and a stuttering take on another of his songs, "I Guess I've Come to Live Here." (He redeems himself some on the latter with his guitar picking, which is downright hypnotic.)

Nelson goes for a similar effect on a busy cover of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come." But it's hard to focus on his contributions -- or anything else -- once you hear Turner's dobro and Mickey Raphael's harmonica, which both sound freakish and alien in this context.

"Sitting in Limbo," another Cliff classic, receives a slightly less countrified treatment and is somewhat more successful.

The album's best song, though, is "I'm a Worried Man." It's not so much what Nelson does on the Johnny Cash composition as who's assisting him: The reggae legend Toots Hibbert, who previously went the dustafarian route with his superlative cover of John Denver's "(Take Me Home) Country Roads."

Hibbert's vocals here -- so soulful, so impassioned, so reggae -- almost make you forget that this is Nelson's album. Hibbert, however, never returns, and we're stuck with the full Nelson island experience.

File under Jamaica mistake.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company