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Willie Nelson takes reggae turn, mon

Country legend brings Jamaican rhythm to some of his old songs
/ Source: The Associated Press

Willie Nelson is so prolific that sometimes even he forgets he has another record coming out.

At a recent show here with Bob Dylan, Nelson performed a long list of hits, but not a single song from his long-awaited reggae album, "Countryman," which comes out Tuesday.

"I keep forgetting," Nelson said a few days later by telephone from the road, which he's called home for most of the last 30 years. "The set is so short."

Nelson began work on the album in 1995 for Island Records, but the project was shelved after 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.

"When he (Cash) found out I was doing a reggae album, he said, 'Hey, I've got a reggae song that I wrote when I lived there,'" Nelson recalled. "Toots heard it and liked it."

That Nelson's country songs stand up so well to reggae's 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.

Controversial cover art
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.

If any country star can get away with marijuana leaves on a CD, it's Nelson. Besides being an innovator and leading figure in American music, he's also been a rebel and outlaw.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he moved his family from his native Texas to Nashville and tried to break through as a singer in the early 1960s. But his off-the-beat, conversational delivery was unconventional by Nashville standards.

Stripped down sound, long, long hair
He returned to Texas in 1970 and began building a fan base with his live shows. He grew his hair long, stripped down his sound and attracted a youthful rock audience. He made more than a dozen albums before he hit his stride with "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," "Georgia on My Mind," "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys," "On the Road Again," "Always on My Mind" and "Whiskey River."

Along the way, Nelson launched a successful film career ("Electric Horseman," "Wag the Dog"), started the annual Farm Aid concerts with John Mellencamp and Neil Young — and ran into tax trouble.

This summer, for the second time in as many years, he and Dylan are performing in minor league ball parks all over the country. On stage the two are a study in contrast. Nelson opens with smiles and waves and a predictable, hit-heavy set. Dylan sits off to the side behind a keyboard, plays very few hits and changes the set list every night.

The two almost never perform together.

"I go on so early I can be halfway to the next town before he shows up," said Nelson, who says he and Dylan have discussed doing a song or two together, as well as sitting down for a game of chess, but haven't gotten around to either yet.

At 72, Nelson continues to record and perform at a breakneck pace. He believes his best record is still ahead of him.

"I feel like we're doing one now that's going to be better than anything else we've ever done," he said.