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Songbird

Hello, y'all. My name is Joe. I'm a student from Texas, and Kate asked me to write some guest posts, so here goes.

Willie Nelson released an album last year that I'm only now getting around to listening to. Songbird is an album of covers, produced by Ryan Adams with the Cardinals (Ryan's backing band) backing Willie. It's wonderful.

Have you ever been walking in a thick fog? Take a breath and it feels as if you're getting as much water as air. With the Cardinals, it's like that, but instead of water, it's guitar. Their sound is characterized by a clashing of melodic guitars that suffuses the music. Throw in plenty of pedal steel and a bass-heavy quiet drum texture, and put that with Willie's voice, and the result is Songbird.

A few standouts from the album (apart from "Amazing Grace" in a minor key--which is every bit as strange as it sounds--and the Ryan Adams song "Blue Hotel") are "$1000 Wedding" (Gram Parsons), "Hallelujah" (Leonard Cohen), and "Stella Blue" (The Grateful Dead).

Willie's "$1000 Wedding" is (and forgive me for saying this, for I love Parsons) a cover that surpasses the original. The tormented guitar drives the tune from its soft beginning through the self-destructive middle to the conclusion. The instrumental depth on Songbird makes the difference. Though it is a Parsons song, the original seems flat next to Willie and the Cardinals.

Now as for "Hallelujah," it seems to be the most-covered song of the past twenty years, if not of all time (if you can think of any song that has been covered more, please let me know. I have sixteen different recordings of this one on my computer, and there are at least that many more out there). And out of all the versions I've heard, from the original Leonard Cohen to Imogen Heap's a capella to the blues treatment by Popa Chubby to the Rufus Wainwright cover that brought the song to the attention of most, Willie's is my favorite. I would go so far to say that it's as close to perfect as I've ever heard the song played. The pedal steel is a much-needed addition, and Willie rivals even Cohen for the voice to sing the song with. Listen to the pedal steel, weeping its metal tears, and the soft tom beat that drives the chorus. By the time the choir kicks in at the end, it's just icing on the cake.

The best song on the album, and the one that epitomizes Songbird's style, is a cover of the Grateful Dead. Though I've never heard the original, I'm not sure that I need to, or that I want to, after listening to "Stella Blue" as sang by Willie. This one you have to hear for yourself.

That's it for now. In a week or so, you'll probably be hearing from me about Ryan Adams's new album, Easy Tiger, and maybe (if I get my hands on a copy), Willie's latest, with Merle Haggard and Ray Price. And then there're a couple more groups that are much less well-known that I may point y'all to. In the meantime, enjoy the music.

Willie Nelson - Stella Blue (Grateful Dead cover)
Willie Nelson - Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen cover)

Buy Songbird from Amazon.

P.S. My blog: From A Student's Eyes.

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2 Responses to “Songbird”

  1. # Anonymous Danger

    I love Willie, but his "Stella Blue" isn't a patch on Jerry Garcia's version when the Grateful Dead were in top form. Do yourself a favor and check it out.  

  2. # Blogger Kate

    I have to admit, I'm a little partial to the Rufus Wainwright cover of Hallelujah, but Willie Nelson's version definitely has it's own appeal.  

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