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Rhythm & Views

Willie Nelson

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Songbird teams the prolific Willie Nelson with the even more prolific Ryan Adams, who produces and backs Nelson along with his band the Cardinals. Though he made his name as a songwriter, Nelson's recent albums have contained as many, if not more, cover songs as original tunes--his last two were a tribute to the songs of Cindy Walker and a foray into, of all things, reggae--and this one is no exception: Only three of Songbird's 11 tracks were penned by Nelson, and all three have been released in different versions on earlier albums. At age 73, his best songs seem behind him, and these days, he appears content to be a great interpreter of others' songs. Which, as Songbird again proves, he is.

Because Adams and Nelson have dabbled in so many genres, it's tough to know just what to expect before listening to this album. Surprisingly, even with its relatively rough edges and occasional guitar feedback (the latter on a version of the Grateful Dead's "Stella Blue"), this may be the most country-sounding record Nelson has released in some time, even as it rocks harder in spots. His take on Leonard Cohen's oft-covered "Hallelujah" may be the first to feature harmonica and pedal steel, while "$1,000 Wedding" reminds why Gram Parsons is often credited as the architect of country-rock. And the updates of those three Nelson originals are among the highlights, too.

Oddly, the only letdown is the album-closing, electric country-blues version of "Amazing Grace," whose melody certainly doesn't need to be tinkered with, as it is here.

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