Hyping Milk Cow Blues as Willie Nelson’s first official blues album is smart marketing, but these days Nelson simply makes Willie Nelson records—his legend and aesthetic transcend genre and concept. Milk Cow Blues is interesting not because it’s blues-oriented but because it so often can’t help but sound like pure Willie. Which is no accident, for his singing and songwriting have always employed blues phrasings. Case in point: the straightforward manner in which he approaches the umpteenth recycling of “Crazy,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and “Night Life.” They’re mostly delivered paint-by-number, except for the Dream Team magic B. B. King brings to “Night Life.” And, yes, Milk Cow Blues is also yet another duet record, with two tracks apiece from Francine Reed, Dr. John, Jonny Lang, Susan Tedeschi, and King. Though it’s tough to say whether youngsters like Lang and Tedeschi were invited to drive sales, song selection ultimately proves more important than who else is singing ’em. Alongside blues standards like “Kansas City” and “The Thrill Is Gone,” a pair of long-forgotten Nelson tunes, “Wake Me When It’s Over” and “Rainy Day Blues,” stand strong. In fact, forget the guests altogether. A gorgeous solo reading of Bob Wills’ “Sittin’ on Top of the World” that should forever bridge the gap between western swing and blues winds up being the album’s most spine-tingling moment. Nelson too often relegates himself to rhythm guitar parts for this CD to earn him the guitar-hero status he deserves, but Milk Cow Blues is still a showcase for singin’ Willie. At 67, rarely has he sounded more authentic or compelling. How naturally the voice meets the material offers yet another graceful step forward, making Milk Cow Blues as eminently listenable as a plain ol’ Willie record should be. In a perfect world, that alone would have warranted the hype.
From the October 2000 Issue Subscribe