There's a common misconception that Willie Nelson is a country artist. To see him live is to realize country is only a fraction of his musical repertoire, which encompasses almost every form of American music. At a Willie show, country shares equal ground with improvisational jazz, jam band rock, standards and a generous helping of the blues. So the fact that he decided to record a full-on blues album, Milk Cow Blues (due Sept. 19 on Island Records), is less surprising than the fact that it's taken him so long to get around to it.
"I always wanted to do a blues album," Nelson explains on his bus half an hour after his performance at the Newport Folk Festival. "But I knew how important it was to do it right and to have the right musicians in there and to have really good authentic blues players."
Living outside of Austin, Tex., Nelson had little trouble rounding up capable blues hounds. "There's the greatest blues musicians in the world down there, and playing around Antone's, I got to know them all," he says. After jamming and picking together, Nelson invited some of the players back to his studio. "It just made sense to get in there and do some blues. I knew at the time we didn't know what we were going to do with it; it was just one of those things where it was let's go play some blues, and we'll see what we can do with it later."
Nelson recorded the basic tracks of Milk Cow Blues, which includes revisions of his own songs "Crazy" and "Night Life" as well as "Kansas City," "Ain't Nobody's Business" and "Texas Flood," with a guitarist Derek O'Brien, bassist John Blondell, keyboardist Riley Osborne, drummer George Raines and his regular harmonica player, Mickey Raphael. Many celebrity guests were also called in, ranging from legends B.B. King and Dr. John to younger blood like Keb' Mo', Susan Tedeschi and hotshot guitarists Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "I think a lot young people coming up would be interested in hearing great blues guys like Dr. John and B.B. King," says Nelson. "And Susan and Jonny Lang are two good examples of young people bringing more people into the audience."
Willie fans will get a chance to sample some of his blues fare on Monday, Aug. 14 when he tapes a Live By Request special in New York. The program will air that night on A&E at 9 p.m. EST. The concert will also be Web cast on www.livebyrequest.com, which is where fans can go to email their personal song requests to Nelson.
"Hopefully they'll be requesting some of the blues songs," says Nelson, noting that he'll have both his blues band and his regular band on hand for the occasion. "And if they don't, I'll say, 'Here's one you should have requested.' So I'll pack it a little bit."
Milk Cow Blues isn't the only genre album on Nelson's horizon. He said that his long-delayed reggae album should finally see the light of day sometime next year.
"The reggae album -- we can't forget about that," he chuckled. "I cut it a few years ago, but Island changed executives and it kind of got put on the back shelf. But now >Don Was and I are going back to Jamaica in November to finish it and put Marley's son and some of the Wailers on it, and do it up right."