By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
How Great Thou Art
Willie Nelson (with Bobbie Nelson)
Finer Arts Records
If Johnny Rodriguez had released You Can Say That Again in 1976, he might not be having a comeback now. This collection of new clothes--comfortably hung over old, traditional shoulders--delivers on the promise of the progressive-country revolution of the '70s, a revamping that dumped convention and put the song first. Back then, this collection could've made him a big, like Jerry Jeff Walker; considering the toothless old fraud Walker's become, Rodriguez may have gotten the best part of the deal.
Far better that he, after years of semiretirement and anonymity, returns to us now, with a collection of stellar songs by the generation that carried the torch passed by Rodriguez and his cohorts: Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, Robert Earl Keen, and others. There's no uptown revisionism here, either. This album definitely has its Ropers on, with fiddles galore and a prominent steel that doesn't cover its face when it weeps. Ace sessionmen like Hargus "Pig" Robbins and Jerry Kennedy support Rodriguez's uniquely accented voice, with its nasal, sometimes almost whiny quality--in certain ways a lot like Willie Nelson's--perfectly suited to the heartbreak, hope and (dis)illusion that's the backbone of real country music.
Like many central Texas boys, Willie Nelson's wild ways could never really completely obscure a raising rooted in the old-time church and gospel music. As far back as Red Headed Stranger Nelson had covered hymns such as "Just As I Am," done as an instrumental there and reprised with words here. Sister Bobbie played piano on both cuts, and without a band (the two are supported only by Jon Blondell on bass) her oft-overlooked contributions to her brother's sound stand out: a pretty, almost chimelike tinkling, the sound of a whorehouse piano played with repentance early on a Sunday morning. Accompanying Bobbie, Willie's lyrical, nylon-stringed-guitar work lends suppleness to favorites like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "In the Garden."
Granted, the first impulse is to reject this album as a quick money-making fix--the guy lately seems to release an album every 15 minutes and his upcoming effort tackles reggae, of all things--but somehow this cynicism just doesn't survive the listening. Willie sings with a conviction devoid of contrivance, keeping each song safe from camp and cheese and seemingly aware of the obligation that comes with a beloved tune. That one of country's contemporary Pharisees could so convincingly return to church isn't just news, it's practically a parable, and easy on the ears besides.