His previous album Milk Cow Blues, his third album for Island Records and his first blues release, Willie Nelson leaves his mark on yet another chunk of the American musical landscape.
Milk Cow Blues combines the talents of Nelson, an array of special guests, and the cream of the Austin, Texas blues community. Guest stars on the album include B.B. King, Dr. John, young singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, Francine Reed (who usually duets with Nelson’s fellow Texan, Lyle Lovett), and blues prodigies Johnny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
These players–including guitarists Jimmie Vaughan and Derek O’Brien, keyboardist Riley Osbourn, drummer George Rains, bassist Jon Blondell–have played with everyone from the Three Kings (you know, B.B., Albert and Freddie) to Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, and an entire galaxy of Chicago and Louisiana blues stars who have come through Antone’s doors.
Born in 1933 in the tiny Central Texas farming community of Abbott, Willie Nelson grew up in a world permeated with music: The gospel songs of the grandparents who raised him; the blues and Mexican corridas that eased the labor of the cotton fields; the country and Western Swing hits filling the airwaves from Nashville and Fort Worth…and the inner music was inside of him.
“I was raised and worked in the cotton fields around Abbott with a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Mexican-Americans, and we listened to their music all the time. I guess that’s why I was influenced a lot by those around me–there was a lot of singing that went on in the cotton fields,” said Nelson during a break at this year’s annual Fourth of July Picnic.
That lifetime of appreciation figures heavily in the selection of songs that Nelson personally selected for Milk Cow Blues. In addition to the title track, the album also includes Nelson’s renditions of B.B. King’s hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” the Wilbert Harrison/Leiber & Stoller classic “Kansas City,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (recorded by Billie Holiday and numerous others), Bob Wills’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” Larry Davis’ signature song “Texas Flood,” (which also became a trademark tune for Stevie Ray Vaughan), Charles Brown’s mournful “Black Night,” and others. Nelson also dips into his own catalog for blues-tinted versions of his own “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Rainy Day Blues,” “Wake Me When It’s Over,” and “Night Life.”
Since releasing his first single in 1957, he has given birth to concept albums (his first, Yesterday¹s Wine, was recorded in 1971), gospel albums, jazz albums, movie soundtracks, myriad duet projects, Christmas albums, live albums, and an album of standards (1978’s Stardust), which has become a standard in itself.
His around-the-beat blues-flavored vocals set the Nashville musical establishment on his ear. His spare-sounding breakthrough album, 1975’s Red-Headed Stranger, went so against the Music City grain of the day that his record company president first thought Nelson had presented him with a demo. His early-70s merger of the traditional country and long-haired hippie audiences was called suicidal at the time, and has since come to be regarded as visionary.
Outside the recording studio, Nelson established himself as a champion for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts. His Fourth of July Picnics have for the past quarter-century served as a rite of musical passage in Texas. His films include The Electric Horseman (with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson), Wag the Dog (with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman), and many others.
Today, Nelson divides his time between the road and his beloved Pedernales recording studio/golf course in the Hill Country outside of Austin, Texas. Often asked when he plans to retire, the 67-year old Nelson invariably replies with a smile, “All I do is play music and golf–which one do you want me to give up?”