The Knitters & Willie Nelson

The Knitters & Willie Nelson

Cross-pollination: It's how every exciting new development in music happens. Sometimes it's miraculous: A DJ decides to keep repeating those funky drum breaks, and hip-hop is just around the corner. Such sudden breakthroughs are rare, but if musicians never tried on other genres—from Ray Charles putting out a country album to Bob Dylan plugging in to Radiohead deciding to get conceptual and cold—music would mostly spin its wheels. Sometimes the experiments prove unexpectedly fruitful. And sometimes they just wither on the vine.

The Knitters go in the "fruitful" category. Deciding to take a break from punk and surrender to their traditional impulses, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, and DJ Bonebrake from X teamed with Dave Alvin of The Blasters and Jonny Ray Bartel for an acoustic side project. The result was The Knitters' 1985 album Poor Little Critter On The Road, which became an alt-country cornerstone. Bringing punk and rockabilly vigor to traditional country numbers, songs by Merle Haggard and Leadbelly, new tunes, and X covers, it provided a vital reminder that rock and country should probably stop pretending they're not related. And it came just as studio staleness was threatening to engulf both forms.

Twenty years later, the band has returned with a familiar-sounding but welcome sequel. The Modern Sounds Of... The Knitters imports its predecessor's approach wholesale, bringing out the twang in X staples like "Burning House Of Love" and "In This House That I Call Home," paying homage to Porter Wagoner and Bill Anderson with "I'll Go Down Swinging," and getting caustic with originals like "Skin Deep Town" and "Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even)." Modern Sounds could just as easily have appeared 20 years ago, but only the cover of "Born To Be Wild" sounds stale. Some material can't be rescued, no matter how energetic the approach.

Energy has never been a Willie Nelson trademark, and that, in theory, makes a Willie Nelson reggae album not such a terrible idea. The results aren't terrible either—just bland. Nelson deserves credit for continuing to take chances, and Countryman is arguably no more radical a departure than Stardust, his collection of Nelson-ified classic standards. But it's really no wonder that, however much label-wrangling stood in the way of its original release, this mid-'90s recording sat in the vault so long. Steel guitars and steel drums don't really work together (at least, they don't work here), and Nelson sounds as if he'd be equally enthused skanking through the Sunday op-ed pages. He's still a trailblazer, but on Countryman, he only discovers dead ends.

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