Listening to his easy-going version of country these days, you sometimes wonder where Nelson’s “outlaw” status comes from. The smooth vocals, the simple arrangements and the gentle, often sentimental songs sound more Jim Reeves than Steve Earle. And yet the rock’n’roll aristocracy reveres him as a legend.
Look at the line-up for live album Outlaws & Angels, recorded for a recent US TV special. There’s Keith Richards, who learnt his country from listening to Hank and hanging out with Gram, duetting magnificently on “We Had It All”. Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne and Rickie Lee Jones also step up to the plate while, to illustrate the breadth of respect, Kid Rock and Toots Hibbert also appear. Sadly, Dylan’s duet from the event isn’t on the record, presumably for contractual reasons. But the impression that a serious repositioning is going on cannot be dispelled, even by the presence of flag-waving token redneck Toby Keith.
Nelson’s new studio album offers further evidence of an attempt to broaden his appeal. It Always Will Be finds him covering Tom Waits and indulging in more duets with the likes of Lucinda Williams (again) and Norah Jones. But this reaching out to a new audience does not involve compromising the simple verities and virtues that have characterised Nelson’s records for years.
He rocks gently with daughter Paula Nelson on her splendid “Be That As It May”, and “Dreams Come True” is an atmospheric late-night jazz smooch. But, for the rest, it’s all about the emotional honesty of the simple country ballads, particularly his own compositions such as the title track, the lovely sing-me-back-home closer “Texas” and the unadorned, laid-back honesty of his voice. Thankfully, he hasn’t tried to reinvent himself as some born-again alt.country maverick. Authentic, uncomplicated, direct and unerringly true, this is simply how country was always meant to sound before they added the saccharine and sequins.