Editor’s Note: This article first appeared at Chicagoblues.com on July 9th, 2015.
There are times when artists surprise us with an album of material that is somewhat unusual, not being their normal vein. One example that immediately comes to mind is Pat Boone making a “Metal” album, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy. Sometimes these outings work, and sometimes they don’t.
In 2000, Willie Nelson released Milk Cow Blues, on the Island Records label. The album peaked at number 83 on the U.S. Billboard 200, and number 2 on the U.S. Billboard Blues Albums. Now some of you might be raising your eyebrows in surprise and thinking “A blues album from Willie Nelson? Really?” Yes, friends, he really did put out a blues album, and why not?
Willie Nelson has been one of America’s most beloved troubadours for decades now, writing songs that illustrate various aspects of the lives and loves of the common man. He has not been adverse to exploring new avenues, having made reggae and jazz albums, as well as his beloved country releases.
Milk Cow Blues features 15 tracks, and clocks in at just under 70 minutes. This is a “guest duets” album and has Willie paired with the likes of Susan Tedeschi, Dr. John, Jonny Lang, B.B. King, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Some critics have faulted this album for being overproduced, and for some of the guests overselling their performances. Sure, some of the production is a little slicker than an austere album such as Stardust or Night and Day, but this is still very much a Willie Nelson outing.
Standout tracks include “Milk Cow Blues,” with its unhurried pace and Willie’s vocal, shared with Francine Reed. Willie is joined by Keb’ Mo’ on “Outskirts of Town,” and Dr. John on “Black Night,” both of which are luxuriously moody. Susan Tedeschi and Willie perform an interesting take on “Crazy,” and Jonny Lang adds the perfect touch to Willie’s performance of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business,” which is smooth and easy, like a fine blended Scotch with the perfect glimmer of bite. The album closes with a unique approach to “Texas Flood” that works quite well actually, as Willie and Kenny Wayne Shepherd weave a comforting blues blanket to wrap around us.
Milk Cow Blues works on several levels: It’s convincing, striking blues, that still exudes Willie’s uniquely understated but caring touch. This may be a “duets” album, but in the end, it is very much a Willie Nelson album; definitely one worth reacquainting ourselves with.