Willie Nelson is releasing a new reggae album, “Countryman,” out today.
According to AP, Nelson began work on the album in 1995 for Island Records, but the project was shelved after Universal bought Polygram, and Island founder Chris Blackwell left the company. It languished until Nelson moved to Lost Highway Records.
Produced by Don Was, who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt among others, the album includes reggae versions of Nelson songs such as “Darkness On the Face of the Earth” and “One in a Row.” There also are covers of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” and “Sitting in Limbo,” and a song called “I’m a Worried Man” by Johnny and June Carter Cash that Nelson recorded as a duet with Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals.
That Nelson’s country songs stand up so well to reggae’s offbeat syncopation and upstroke guitar strums is a testament to their durability. Nelson said he recorded them about 10 years ago in Los Angeles with Jamaican musicians, including some from the late reggae star Peter Tosh’s band.
“The musicians told me that reggae was invented really by listening to country music coming from the United States. They put their own rhythms to those tunes,” he said.
While the music on “Countryman” might raise the eyebrows of country purists, so will the cover. With green marijuana leaves on a red and yellow background, the cover art makes the CD look like an oversized pack of rolling papers.
The marijuana imagery reflects Jamaican culture, where the herb is a leading cash crop and part of religious rites, but it also reflects Nelson’s fondness for pot smoking.
Universal Music Group Nashville is substituting palm trees for the marijuana leaves on CDs sold at the retail chain Wal-Mart, a huge outlet for country music that’s also sensitive about lyrics and packaging.
“They’re covering all the bases,” Nelson joked.