Out There

You better, you Beck

The Hi-Lo Country
Various artists
TVT Soundtrax

It seems of late as though Willie Nelson's career--one built on the resistance to fad or fashion coupled with the outlaw's willingness to try anything once--has been reduced to a series of gimmicks. Namely: covering Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon or letting Daniel Lanois turn him into a croaking echo set to an inexplicable samba beat. And the selling point of this soundtrack (which features marvelous new recordings of old standards by the likes of Don Walser, Marty Stuart, and ex-Playboy Leon Rausch) is yet another oddball Willie-and-special-guest pairing. Only this time around, Nelson shares mike time with Beck, the bastard child of folk-blues, a young man whose fondness for "authenticity" and whose desire to mutate and mutilate genres make him a kindred spirit of sorts.

At first, it doesn't even sound like Beck when he launches into a twang-and-twinkle version of "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin," first recorded by the likes of Ernest Tubb and produced here by trad-fetishist Marty Stuart. Beck's voice is deep, flat, unadorned--naked, in other words, so very olden, country. This is the guy who sings "Canceled Check" on Mutations, the ex-folkie with One Foot in the Grave, the guy who travels through "the boggy wasteland of the American spirit" (as he once explained) and emerges each time born again in a different tattered guise.

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Like Bob Dylan performing with his idol Johnny Cash on recordings that would surface only on shoddy, secret bootlegs, Beck alters his voice to match Nelson's. He is damned near unrecognizable throughout the song, but when he and Nelson perform the chorus together--"I'm just drivin' nails in my coffin / Every time I drink a bottle of booze"--their voices fit together like muscle and skin. Beck fills in the gaps created by Nelson's beautiful nasal twang, adds depth, takes risks. But unlike Dylan--who went to Nashville and burned to cinders in the master's ring of fire--Beck doesn't come off as a lost stranger, an interloper. It never feels as though he must stoop down to the material in order to keep pace with it.

Willie's one of Beck's folks, a performer whose every move is dipped in the unholy waters of tradition; nothing either man has ever recorded smacks of irony. Beck and Nelson covering a decades-old country song and making it sound so timelessly tomorrow is what they do best. After all, Beck's a historian as well as a modernist, a 28-year-old who used to perform Skip James covers in punk-rock clubs. And Nelson, well, the man was old-school before the old school was ever built. Tonight, the boys burn down the honky-tonk.

--Robert Wilonsky

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