In a four-decade career that's seen him achieve distinction as both a beloved mainstream entertainer and a respected cutting-edge artist, Willie Nelson has managed to maintain his outlaw status. In the past few years, he's continued to stake out fresh artistic ground, releasing a series of adventurous, personal albums that have explored his musical roots as well as revisiting some of the early compositions that first put Nelson on the map.
That's the case with Nelson's new release, Milk Cow Blues, on which the multi-talented Texan explores his early blues influences with the help of such notable guests as B.B. King (on a reworking of King's 1969 breakthrough hit "The Thrill Is Gone"), Dr. John, Susan Tedeschi, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Keb' Mo' and Francine Reed. The album also features a studio band consisting of some of Austin, Texas' top blues players including guitarists Jimmie Vaughan and Derek O'Brien. The material includes such blues and r&b standards as "Kansas City," "Ain't Nobody's Business," "Sittin' On Top of the World" and "Texas Flood," while reaching back into Nelson's own songbook for the Willie compositions "Crazy," "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Night Life," "Wake Me When It's Over" and "Rainy Day Blues."
Though Milk Cow Blues is the artist's first official blues album, he's no stranger to the style, whose influence has been prominent in his own recordings. Indeed, Nelson's music has always been informed by the eclectic array of influences he'd absorbed while growing up in the Central Texas farm town of Abbott, where he was surrounded by a wide variety of music, from country and western swing to gospel and Mexican folk tunes. And the blues, of course.
"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," Nelson recalls. "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."
As for the relative scarcity of new self-penned material on his recent releases, Nelson recently commented to The Wall Street Journal, "I was originally a songwriter and still figure that's one of my strongest suits," but added, "Songwriting I don't really enjoy doing. That's work. I usually have more songs than I need, so I'm not under pressure to write anything new. I'm real critical of what I write, and I seem to be more so as I get older. Everything new I write I start tearing apart."