When you think of Willie Nelson, what comes to mind? He has such a long and varied career that there are countless correct answers to that question. Willie is an outlaw country pioneer. At the same time, he’s one of the world’s favorite Texans. He’s also a killer songwriter, singer, and guitarist. Then, there’s his marijuana use and advocacy. At the end of the day, Willie is a country music icon and one of the most productive potheads on the face of the planet. However, in all of those things, the last thing that many people would connect to Nelson is “chart-topping reggae artist.” Well, in 2005 that was a fitting title.
On this day in 2005, the world got to see a whole new side of Willie Nelson. He released Countryman through the Lost Highway label. That album seamlessly combined country and reggae. Willie’s voice and Trigger’s ringing tone lead the way through an album that felt like sitting on the border of Austin, Texas and an island paradise.
This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision nor was it something that Willie Nelson took lightly. For starters, Willie worked on the album for about a decade. It was shelved at one point during the nineties and just sat there gathering dust. Finally, Nelson finished and released it in 2005. As for not taking it lightly, a look at the tracklist and credits on the album show that Nelson knows his stuff when it comes to reggae.
For instance, Willie Nelson covers reggae great Jimmy Cliff a couple of times on the album. Both “The Harder They Come,” and “Sitting in Limbo,” are Cliff songs. Additionally, Willie enlists ska and reggae legend Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals fame to cover Johnny Cash’s “I’m a Worried Man.”
Why Willie Nelson’s Blend of Country and Reggae Makes Sense
On its face, it doesn’t seem like country and reggae go together. However, Willie Nelson’s blend on Countryman really makes sense when you think about it. It’s not just because both Jamaica and Willie are known for their love of the jazz cabbage, either. However, that doesn’t hurt.
Both reggae and country music are considered roots music. Both genres are representative of their home country. Currently, artists of both genres can be found all around the globe. However, in their inception, country music was uniquely American and reggae was uniquely Jamaican.
The connections are deeper than that, though. Willie Nelson’s music, and country music in general, explores issues of class. More specifically, issues of growing up and living poor. That is the undercurrent of much of the genre. Love, heartache, celebration, and inebriation are layered over the examinations of poverty. The same is true for reggae.
At the end of the day, Countryman sees Willie Nelson stepping outside the box. The album is largely forgotten. However, it’s worth checking out at least once.