Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Somewhere over the Rainbow further establishes Willie Nelson as country music's preeminent conservator of America's pop tradition. Coproduced by Nelson and featuring a five-man combo of musical buddies from his Texas honky-tonking days (including noted fiddler Johnny Gimble), this collection of eight standards and two traditional tunes is even more resourceful than Stardust in evoking the timelessness that is Nelson's stock in trade as a singer, songwriter and Texas-American icon.

Whereas Stardust was a Los Angeles-produced pop-country LP with strings, Somewhere over the Rainbow is a lively acoustic record of simpler material, made in Texas, with no frills. Utilizing only a fiddle, a stand-up bass, a mandolin and guitars, the arrangements suggest a spontaneous musicale whose inspirations range from Django Reinhardt to Bob Wills to Les Paul. This all-purpose period sound perfectly complements Willie Nelson's Lone Star gypsy persona. Alternating with him on lead vocals is Freddie Powers, a Reno bandleader whose more casual swing style makes a nice contrast to Nelson's intensity.

Somewhere over the Rainbow may be the most audacious album thus far in the revivalist phase of Nelson's career. It's certainly the clearest expression yet of his conviction that all enduring popular music — be it Southern blues. Nashville country or Hollywood soundtrack — is equally pure. Nelson can make just about anything he sings sound like "roots" music, stripped to the bone to reveal homely truths. He even reclaims "Somewhere over the Rainbow" (which I'd assumed could never be disassociated from The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland's quavering, world-weary renditions) from its vault in the Emerald City of pop mythology. Here, it sounds like a plainsman's lullaby to himself as he squints into a Western sunset: awkward, touching, mystified.

There are some questionable song choices. "Mona Lisa," a big hit for Nat "King" Cole in 1950, boasts a lovely melody, but not even Nelson can untangle the moony, goddess-worshiping lyric. "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," done as an instrumental, is perhaps overly cute. Most of the time, however, the singer succeeds in putting across his pantheistic pop philosophy. Besides "Mona Lisa," the LP's newest number (about thirty years old!), is an obscure Jimmy Wakely-Fred Rose country waltz, "It Wouldn't Be the Same (without You)." Along with Nelson's tribute to Lefty Frizzell (To Lefty from Willie) and his honky-tonk swing album with Ray Price (San Antonio Rose), this tune offers further evidence that there's a vast storehouse of vintage country cuts that haven't dated nearly as badly as several New York pop songs from the same era.

Willie Nelson ignores the distinctions between children's and adults' music the way he refuses to differentiate between country and pop. In addition to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and the title track, Somewhere over the Rainbow includes a grown-up kiddie composition ("Won't You Ride in My Little Red Wagon") and a secular hymn ("In My Mother's Eyes") that reinforce the we-are-all-children-in-song concept. It's not a notion I'm particularly fond of — since it lends itself to the cynical manipulations of singalong hucksters like Mitch Miller — yet Nelson pulls it off. If his taste isn't infallible, it's damned good: e.g., the excellent jump versions of "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Who's Sorry Now?" and "Exactly like You." Undoubtedly, the most affecting performance here is Nelson's beautifully sung rendition of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)."

Is a hummable tune the irreducible element of popular music? Willie Nelson would probably insist that it is. But if that's true, then Nelson's intuitive classicism falls short of embracing some of the finest American pop. Bob Dylan's surrealism, Joni Mitchell's confessions and Stephen Sondheim's puzzles may be too sophisticated for him. And there's a whole body of rock & roll and R&B in which rhythm and lyrics are so much more prominent than melody that they might not yield to this artist's style of canonization.

Despite its limitations, however, Nelson's revivalist taste doesn't strike me as foolishly sentimental or dangerously reactionary. Like his great populist predecessor, Bing Crosby, he recognizes and respects the essential role pop music plays in most people's existences. They don't approach it as a specific genre or art form. Instead, they accept it as part of life's fabric, as something somehow connected to their own spirituality. The idea of a populist spiritual community was the touchstone of Bing Crosby's success. In everything he sang, he evoked an Irish-Catholic vision of heavenly consolation. Willie Nelson's vision is a bit more dour and Protestant, but it's also ultimately reassuring. His songs forge connections — adults to children, the present to the past, the church to the home — that help establish a sense of community.

What makes Nelson contemporary is the way his singing lets in the darkness — fear, loneliness, despair — so that the lyrics emerge as statements of truth rather than as soothing homilies. In his conversational style, with its casual stop-start phrasing, he seizes the emotional kernels of songs, wrings out the words in a keening baritone, then shucks off the filler like chaff. Merle Haggard and George Jones may be more soulful, but they're only singing about their own pain. Willie Nelson has a touch of the preacher in him. He can stand back, look outside himself and turn pop tunes into parables that have a universal, as well as a personal, meaning.