Do You Mind Too Much If I Don't Understand
How Long Is Forever
The Harder They Come
Something To Think About
Darkness On The Face Of The Earth
I've Just Destroyed The World
You Left Me A Long, Long Time Ago
I Guess I've Come To Live Here
After nearly a decade of gestation, Willie Nelson's long-lost, and first, reggae set is at last complete. The seed of this project took root in late 1995, sprung from the mind of famed producer Don Was. Nelson and his manager Mark Rothbaum flew to Jamaica to meet with Island Records president and founder Chris Blackwell. Don had been speaking with both Blackwell and Nelson about the prospect of creating a reggae-infused country album and both men were intrigued. Blackwell was the ideal collaborator. Not only was he the person who introduced rock audiences to the world of reggae but likewise introduced them to Bob Marley. As a versatile, well-connected music aficionado, he could realize this marriage of country and reggae the way few others could.
In fact, the two genres are compatible in many ways, and not as distant stylistically as one might initially imagine. Toots Hibbert proved it with his triumphant version of "Country Roads" and the renown reggae group the Melodians were the first to turn the gospel/bluegrass classic "Rivers of Babylon," (also previously covered by Willie) into a full-on reggae classic. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that reggae is sometimes referred to as Jamaica's "country music," being that both forms have drawn similar lyrical content from everyday matters and share a foundation in spiritual and gospel music.
"I was intrigued by the idea of attempting to make a country based reggae album," says Blackwell. "I've always been keen on music which merges different cultures and styles, and with Willie being one of the great songwriters and being an artist whose frequently stepped outside of his base, it seemed like a natural concept."
Oddly enough, it was at this first meeting on the island that the well-received project also hit its first delay. During their talk, Willie mentioned to Blackwell that he had another record on the front burner. At the time, Nelson had been hard at work on a self-produced project, an album that would later become the acclaimed Spirit. Upon hearing that recording, Blackwell fell in love with it, and the admiration helped seal the deal for Willie to make the Island imprint his new home. That deal also gave Willie and Don the green light for the reggae project to move forward, but "Spirit" was to be the first release.
Spirit was released in June of 1996. Its understated beauty and powerful concept would make it Willie's most focused and personal effort of the decade. It would also become the very foundation of Nelson's successful relationship- personally and commercially-with Island. Willie's subsequent recordings for the label, especially the Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro, built upon that relationship. But with other projects taking priority, the reggae album, despite it getting underway, had been quietly moved into the background. That condition would remain so, and deepen, when Seagram's, which owned Universal Records, snatched up Polygram, and Blackwell, the record's champion, parted ways with Island in 1998.
With no one left to speak for the album, Was and Willie finished up a few sessions and vaulted it. Of course, the reggae project was always on Willie's mind to finish as soon as possible. The resulting corporate mish-mash saw Island merging with Def Jam, and while the merger proved successful, it wasn't the right home for Willie. Eventually, in 2001, Willie moved over to Lost Highway, a label built on a sturdy roster of mavericks and outsiders. And here's where the story of Willie's reggae recording comes full circle.
In 2004, Lost Highway founder Luke Lewis hired former Island and Palm Entertainment (Blackwell's new venture) A&R VP Kim Buie as his new Vice President of A&R. Well aware of Buie's close relationship with Blackwell, Lewis brought up the idea of rediscovering the now-storied "lost" reggae sessions. Could she make it one of her first projects?
"Willie and I had discussed the project many times, and I knew it meant a lot to him. The music is so cool, so it was always in the back of my mind. When Kim arrived, it just seemed like the obvious time to try and finally make it a reality." says Lewis
Lewis had been mulling over the reggae idea for some time and he grew determined to help the red-headed stranger finish the album and fulfill the project's original promise. Some of the work had already been done; it was only a matter of seeing it through to completion.
The original project partner Don Was happened to be in the studio with the Rolling Stones, so with his support, Buie, in consultation with Rothbaum, hired producer Richard Feldman (Toots Hibbert, Wailing Souls, Shakespear sister, Eurythymics, No Doubt). The Feldman connection made perfect sense. In 2004, he produced the Grammy-winning Toots & the Maytals release True Love, a recording that featured an appearance by Willie himself. Indeed, Feldman has extensive reggae credentials. With Feldman's unique production additions and mixing talents inspired by his love of reggae and love of Willie Nelson, the decade-long project was soon finalized.
Countryman is Willie's impassioned tribute to the upstroke sound of Jamaica, an irie voyage to the land of dub and dreadlocks. Willie takes a handful of his own classics and filters them through a reggae prism, peppering them with his nylon acoustic guitar, pedal steel, dobro, harmonica and the familiar comforts of country, while bringing drums and bass to the forefront, yard style. His oft-covered standard "One in a Row" receives a melodic reggae injection, as does "You Left Me a Long Time Ago," a vintage duet he once recorded with Brenda Lee. There's a delightfully skanky run-through of "Darkness on the Face of the Earth," his rugged chestnut from the early '60s. That many of Willie's brilliant tunes could be interpreted so vividly through reggae is a true tribute to the versatility of his material.
Willie also tackles a couple of reggae classics from the notorious and acclaimed Jamaican film soundtrack (originally released on Island) The Harder They Come. Toots Hibbert's daughter Lieba Thomas and Jamaican artist and background singer Pam Hall, join him on a beautiful rendition of the Jimmy Cliff classic "The Harder They Come." Nelson also succeeds with another song made famous by Cliff, the gorgeous "Sitting Here in Limbo." Additionally, reggae legend Toots Hibbert repays Willie with a stirring vocal appearance on Johnny Cash's moving "I'm A Worried Man"; it's the perfect confluence of country and reggae that harkens the roots of soul and hillbilly music, and, like the rest of the album, truly fulfills the potential of the recording's original premise.
So, after a journey lasting over a decade, Willie's Jamaican vision at last sees the bright light of day. While it's just one in a long line of hyphenated hybrid projects the versatile genius has created over the years, this Countryman feels, by the sound of it, genuinely comfortable amid the island breezes of Jamaica.