Willie Nelson

Stars & Guitars

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Superstar guest albums are the bane of the veteran artist. Designed to introduce a new audience to a legend via duets with a variety of stars, they never do justice to the artist, their music, or even the guests who leap at the opportunity to record with an idol. So, you wind up with albums by John Lee Hooker and Santana that don't sound like albums by Hooker and Santana -- just an ad-hoc collection of marketing moves, good intentions, and bad ideas. Willie Nelson, a singer who always sounds unique, even fell prey to this curse on 2002's flop The Great Divide, which was promoted by a star-studded concert later released that year as Willie Nelson & Friends: Stars & Guitars. This live show has one advantage over the studio set: it sounds like Willie Nelson music. Ironically, it has even more guests that distract from the man himself, sounding like an open mic night where anybody with a record contract who happened to be in town could climb on stage with the legend. Perhaps everybody here loves Willie, and some are surely even influenced by him, but there's no rhyme or reason to who is featured here, and while some fit well -- Patty Griffin, Ray Price, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill among them -- many are downright bewildering or irritating. Ryan Adams twice reveals himself as a posturing blowhard, Norah Jones sounds sweet but out of place, Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty might be getting better all the time but share no affinity with Willie's music, and on and on. Perhaps the best illustration of why this doesn't work is Toby Keith's Waylon Jennings impersonation on "Good Hearted Woman," where he copies the classic Waylon & Willie phrasing down to the toss-off cry of "Willie" when handing off the verse. It's studied and kind of affectionate, but there is none of the chemistry between most of the guests and Willie -- the kind he had with Waylon, or countless others that he's performed duets with over the years. Even worse, most of the artists are so confined to their own style, they can't roll with Nelson's idiosyncrasies, which are always engaging. Listen to the last two songs, "On the Road Again" and "Move It on Over," performed by just Willie and the band. They've done these songs countless times over the years, but they sound fresher, livelier than anything else here, and it's hard not to think that a real tribute would be a live show cut at any other night in 2002 than this well-intentioned star-soaked dud.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time Stream
feat: Sheryl Crow
2:39 Amazon
feat: Toby Keith
4:08 Amazon
feat: Rob Thomas
4:00 Amazon
4 4:30 Amazon
5 3:53 Amazon
feat: Ray Price
4:25 Amazon
7 4:55 Amazon
feat: Norah Jones
3:33 Amazon
9 4:17 Amazon
10 4:27 Amazon
11 4:26 Amazon
12 4:25 Amazon
13 4:26 Amazon
feat: Vince Gill
3:09 Amazon
15 5:48 Amazon
feat: Ryan Adams
4:25 Amazon
17 2:26 Amazon
18 4:57 Amazon
blue highlight denotes track pick