Willie Nelson's idiosyncratic vocal style has always been heavily influenced by the blues, just as much as it has been by country, pop, and folk, but he's never recorded a straight blues album until 2000's Milk Cow Blues. Any longtime Nelson fan will undoubtedly by quietly thrilled with the idea of a straight blues album, and the very first notes of the album make it seem like the record will deliver on its promise. Then Francine Reed starts singing. Yes, Milk Cow Blues is designed as a star-studded duets album, which is apparently the only way major labels think a new album from a veteran superstar can seem like an "event," since it will attract press attention and curiosity from fans. Sometimes, the concept works, at least commercially, as proved by the stunning surprise success of Santana's Supernatural. Here, the idea just guts the album of any power it may have had, since Nelson immediately finds an appealingly unusual groove in each song and you want to hear him follow it through to the end. The duets always seem like an intrusion to his musical vision, especially since everybody except Dr. John oversells these songs, singing like a cliché instead of finding their own sound. It's all the more frustrating because Nelson really does find his voice on each song here, a fact that's apparent on the three songs he has to himself: his original "Wake Me When It's Over," "Sittin' on Top of the World," and "Lonely Street." These are great recordings and they can't help but put the rest of the album into sharp relief, since even though they have the same great performances from Nelson and his stellar band, they feel cluttered with guests. Ultimately, those cameos, which are intended to broaden the audience, wind up short-circuiting a record that could have been a modest highlight of Nelson's latter-day catalog. As it stands now, Milk Cow Blues is largely a wasted opportunity.
Milk Cow Blues Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine