In his long and eclectic career, Willie Nelson has recorded country music, standards, gospel, and much more. Now with the release of Milk Cow Blues, his third album for Island Records and his first blues release, Willie Nelson leaves his mark on yet another chunk of the American musical landscape.
Milk Cow Blues combines the talents of Nelson, an array of special guests, and the cream of the Austin, Texas blues community. Guest stars on the album include B.B. King, Dr. John, young singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, Keb’ Mo’, Francine Reed (who usually duets with Nelson’s fellow Texan, Lyle Lovett), and blues prodigies Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Additionally, Willie surrounds himself with a who’s-who of Austin blues players, many of whom are charter members of the house band at Antone’s nightclub, the city’s world famous “home of the blues.”
These players—including guitarists Jimmie Vaughan and Derek O’Brien, keyboardist Riley Osbourn, drummer George Rains, bassist Jon Blondell—have played with everyone from the Three Kings (you know, B.B., Albert and Freddie) to Muddy Waters, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, and an entire galaxy of Chicago and Louisiana blues stars who have come through Antone’s doors.
So when Nelson decided to host a blues session, he didn’t have to look far for some players. “These guys are the best there are, and it just so happened they were right here in Austin,” said Nelson with affection. “So they were here and I was here, and I had never done a blues album…” The rest, as they say, is history.
As for Willie himself, he is no stranger to the blues. Growing up in the farming country of Central Texas, Nelson found himself working alongside migrant and tenant farmers. “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. 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,” said Nelson during a break at this year’s Fourth of July Picnic.
When, at a tender age, he began playing in honky-tonks, where the jukeboxes were ruled by the Western Swing, jazz and jump blues of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. “I’ve always sung ‘Milk Cow Blues’,” Nelson continued, “It was one of the first songs I played when I started working in beer joints. From that, I really got into the blues, and learned a lot of other blues songs. Then, later on, I would visit other beer joints around Texas—one time I used to deliver laundry and linens, so I made it to a lot of beer joints, and I heard a lot of great music on those jukeboxes. I got really addicted, and then I started trying to find out where all this good music could be found on the radio.”
That lifetime of appreciation figures heavily in the selection of songs that Nelson personally selected for Milk Cow Blues. In addition to the title track, the album also includes distinctive Willie-esque renditions of B.B. King’s hit “The Thrill Is Gone,” the Wilbert Harrison/Leiber & Stoller classic “Kansas City,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” (recorded by Billie Holiday and numerous others), Bob Wills’ “Sittin’ On Top of the World,” Larry Davis’ signature song “Texas Flood,” (which also became a trademark tune for Stevie Ray Vaughan), Charles Brown’s mournful “Black Night,” and others. Nelson also dips into his own catalog for blues-tinted versions of his own “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” “Rainy Day Blues,” “Wake Me When It’s Over,” and “Night Life.”
Country fans familiar with the classic C&W renditions of the Willie standards might be initially taken aback (though soon won over). But longtime Willie Nelson fans have come to expect the unexpected from one of the iconoclastic musicians in a state filled with musical rule-benders.
Born in 1933 in the tiny Central Texas farming community of Abbott, Willie Nelson grew up in a world permeated with music: The gospel songs of the grandparents who raised him; the blues and Mexican corridas that eased the labor of the cotton fields; the country and Western Swing hits filling the airwaves from Nashville and Fort Worth…and the inner music that percolated up ceaselessly inside of him. Melodies are easy, he says of his songwriting; if he needs one, he just plucks one out of the air. The air, he says, is full of music.
Since waxing his first single in 1957, he has given birth to concept albums (his first, Yesterday’s Wine, as recorded in 1971), gospel albums, jazz albums, movie soundtracks, myriad duet projects (at this point, Willie has recorded with everyone this side of Regis Philbin), Christmas albums, live albums, and an album of standards (1978’s Stardust) which has become a standard in itself.
His around-the-beat blues-flavored vocals set the Nashville musical establishment on its ear. His spare-sounding breakthrough album, 1975’s Red-Headed Stranger, went so against the Music City grain of the day that his record company president first thought Nelson had presented him with a demo. His early-Seventies merger of the traditional country and long-haired hippie audiences was called suicidal at the time, and has since come to be regarded as visionary. Outside the recording studio, Nelson established himself as a champion for the family farmer with his annual Farm Aid concerts. His Fourth of July Picnics have for the past quarter-century served as a rite of musical passage in Texas. His films include The Electric Horseman (with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson), Wag the Dog (with Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman), and many others.
Today, Nelson divides his time between the road and his beloved Pedernales recording studio/golf course in the Hill country outside of Austin, Texas. Often asked when he plans to retire, Nelson invariably replies with a smile, “All I do is play music and golf—which one do you want me to give up?”