More than a few longtime Willie Nelson fans have grown tired of Nelson's seemingly endless and quite catholic musical explorations and experiments. Since his 1975 breakthrough album, "Red Headed Stranger," Nelson has recorded numerous duets, tributes and movie sound tracks, as well as enough pop standards to play a cocktail lounge for a year. His award-winning collaboration with crooner Julio Iglesias was sufficiently corny to make some cowboys hide their red bandanas.
Nelson's seeming digressions not only underscore his restless musical imagination, but they also help him avoid the creative stasis and stereotyping of most long-term country careers. By outflanking audience expectations, a simple return to form like his new release, "Me and Paul" (Columbia FC40008), comes as a delightful surprise. Featuring nine Nelson originals and three Billy Joe Shaver "outlaw" standards, "Me and Paul" is a fundamental exercise in Nelson's classic western songwriting and instrumental style.
Produced by Nelson and recorded in Texas with his road band, "Me and Paul" conveys a natural musical grace that derives from the band's years of now-instinctive interplay. The title cut, a humorous account of Nelson's more hell-raising days on the road, refers to Paul English, Nelson's drummer since 1954. On hearing English, as well as harmonica player Mickey Raphael and guitarists Grady Martin and Jody Payne, one is struck by both the sophistication of their jazzy play and by the utter economy they enforce in service of Nelson's songs.
Many of these songs, like "She's Gone" and "I Let My Mind Wander" are reflective ballads in which Nelson muses over his personal successes and failures. Here his musicians create austere musical settings that dramatize their brief, lyrical solos, as well as every nuance of Nelson's cautious, conversational phrasing. On "She's Gone," Mickey Raphael's mournful harp solo is every bit as plaintive as Nelson's woeful lyric.
Perhaps the album's standout cut is "I Never Cared for You." Set to a haunting, minor-key melody and embroidered with stirring flamenco guitar patterns, Nelson's dry baritone rises from its melancholy and becomes passionate in its remembrance of one less than dear. Beyond the band's striking instrumentation, this song and "Me and Paul" as a whole are dignified by the unflinching honesty of Nelson's personal reflections on human endurance.
While Nelson seems in total cretive command of every aspect of his music, George Jones seems simply to enter a Nashville studio three times a year and lend his voice to material and arrangements selected by producer Billy Sherrill. All Jones commands is a magnificent voice and delivery, which have been sufficient to sustain his legendary status through an erratic 30-year recording career.
Jones' latest release, "First Time Live" (Epic FE39899), provides a convincing display of his intense and striking vocal abilities in the form of a live concert of some of his most popular material.
Jones sings two kinds of songs here, somewhat comic fast ones and totally sentimental slow ones. On the up-tempo material like "The Race Is On," Jones' voice is like a dizzying roller coaster, fluidly melding precipitous drops to a basso profundo and unearthly whines with a host of unexpected slurs, moans and cries. On gut-wrenching melodramas like "He Stopped Loving Her Today," Jones' clenched-teeth delivery sustains a tragic sense of repressed emotion that almost defines hard country music.
One of the more fallow periods of Jones' career was from 1965 to 1971, when he was carelessly recorded by the Musicor label. On "Heartaches and Hangovers" (Rounder Special Series SS-17), Rounder Records has culled 12 of Jones' best and more obscure recordings from this period. Although the material is mostly honky-tonk, the arrangements here favor the more urbane instrumental stylings and background choruses of the emerging Nashville Sound.
While Jones' voice had a tenor timbre and his delivery was more straightforward during this period, on Leon Payne's despairing "Things Have Gone to Pieces," he displays the full-throated melodrama of recent years. Some of the best cuts, like the satiric "Heartaches and Hangovers" with its sawing fiddle and keening steel guitar, even recall Jones' East Texas honky-tonk origins.
In many respects, this was a transitional period for Jones, both reaching back to his hard country past and anticipating the music's more cosmopolitan future. What unifies the set are Jones' nonpareil conviction and spellbinding vocal power.