by Ted McGregor, Jr.
Willie Nelson is an American original. No doubt they'll put his guitar -- the one with a hole in it where he's strummed straight through -- in the Smithsonian someday. And who anchored the all-star telethon for the survivors of the victims of Sept. 11? Willie. You could see all those young-uns trying to get close, to bask in his glow, to share that rare air.
On his latest CD, it's a lot like that, with young music stars teaming up with the braided bard. But is it them seeking to catch his vibe, or is it Willie trying to tap into their pop culture niche to reach a whole new audience? After all, the approach worked to the tune of about a zillion records sold for Carlos Santana on Supernatural.
The Great Divide starts out strong, with a Rob Thomas-penned tune, "Maria (Shut Up and Kiss Me)." Thomas, you'll recall, wrote and sang "Smooth" on Supernatural, making the parallel all the more obvious (he wrote three of the songs on The Great Divide). Willie's never been above making a buck, and it appears that's the case here.
"Mendocino County Line" with Lee Ann Womack and co-written by Bernie Taupin is nice, too. But "Last Stand in Open Country," the third track with Kid Rock (yep, Kid Rock), is where Willie lost me. It's sorta cool to start out with, but quickly turns into a Western parody -- and I don't think that's what they were trying for.
The rest of the CD meanders from the acceptable ("The Great Divide" at least showcases his guitar playing) to classic Willie (the funny "Just Dropped In [To see What Condition My Condition Was In]") to the just plain awful ("Be There For You" with Sheryl Crow, set to a synthesizer back beat of some really bad reggae). His cover of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" is somewhat interesting but, in the end, ill-advised. But another Bernie Taupin tune, "This Face," could become a signature song for Willie: "This face is all I have/Worn and lived in/Lines below my eyes/They're like old friends." On the CD, the song is overdone; maybe in concert he can strip it down to its essentials.
Willie has always been fearless. One of his best CDs (Stardust) is full of covers of pop standards from the 1930s and '40s. It's just that quality that makes The Great Divide so uneven. He's willing to try just about anything, and that's why we love him, even when some of the results aren't quite Willie-worthy.