Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson

Teatro

Island

Throughout his 40-plus year career, Willie Nelson has always pushed the envelope of country music. He’s done straight country and honky tonk, explored his interests in pop standards and blues, and taken side trips into jazz and string-heavy big band. As a matter of fact, a reggae album is supposedly in the works. With that in mind, Willie’s newest release, Teatro , makes perfect sense, as the Red Headed Stranger matches his fantastic songs with some heavy almost mariachi rhythms.

Anyone familiar with Willie’s music knows he draws heavily on sounds from south of the Texas border, especially in his distinctive, Mexican-flavored guitar playing. It is thanks to those roots in Tex-Mex that Teatro , for the most part, works. Reprising her role as World’s Greatest Backup Singer, the fabulous Emmylou Harris appears on a number of tracks to add her distinctive backing vocals to Willie’s ragged voice, shining particularly on “These Lonely Nights.” Hooking up with producer Daniel Lanois, who’s worked with U2 and most recently Bob Dylan, Willie digs out some hoary old chestnuts of songs, adding a little Mexican spice.

Therein lies perhaps the one gripe with Teatro . Except for three new tracks, all the songs on the album are at least 30 years old. Like his big-band jazz effort “Healing Hands of Time,” Willie reworks some classics, as it seems his once mighty songwriting pen has apparently run dry. While the new tracks (“Everywhere I Go,” “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and “I’ve Loved You All Over the World”) are exceptional, Willie certainly digs deep in his considerable repertoire for old, almost forgotten tunes that would leave even the most hardcore Nelson fanatic scratching his or her head.

The most engaging track is producer Lanois’s excellent “The Maker.” Nelson’s time-ravaged voice is still in excellent shape and is perfect for the sin-and-redemption theme of the tune. The mariachi-like rhythms work perfectly with the sprightly “Darkness on the Face of the Earth,” giving the old honky-tonk rocker an almost Bo Diddley feel. “Three Days” and “I’ve Just Destroyed the World” are by themselves fantastic tunes and the new reworkings breathe new life in the forgotten classics. Willie also reprises one of his most beautiful songs, “Home Motel,” one of the few tracks without rhythmic update.

The only tune Lanois’s production falls flat on is “I Never Cared For You.” The heavy drums and in-your-face rhythms distract from the overall beauty of this wonderful tune. Beyond that one clunker, however, Teatro is a nifty little album with an interesting bent on Willie’s music. It’s definitely more for the hardcore Willie freaks than the casual fans, and one hopes Willie still got a few more albums of new original tunes left in him. Teatro proves above all else the old man’s can still surprise, so who knows what he has up his sleeve next.

Island Records, 825 Eighth Ave., 24th Floor, New York, NY 10019

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