Having grown up with the words to "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" all but a priori in my head, I have found it hard to appreciate the scope and reach of Willie Nelson. Sure, he penned classic songs for country superstars like Patsy Cline, Faron Young, and Ray Price before becoming one himself. Yet he quickly blew off the uptight Nashville scene and spearheaded the outlaw movement with drinking buddies like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. And though he has a lengthy (and oftentimes brilliant) career braiding together Hank's country, Django's jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and whatever other American music strands are at hand, he's more well regarded as the patron saint of High Times who fired up a jay on the roof of the White House.
Though Nelson may have more doobies in the ashtray than Bob Marley did, he's never blended reggae into his stash. On paper the pairing sounds like a match made in heaven, albeit in a very smoky and hazy section of God's domicile. But the thing is that Countryman, the decade-long Nelson reggae bomber that kept bouncing between labels and the studio of producer Don Was, isn't that great.
The session players, slick and not quite ragamuffin, do their part: pedal steel slides in and out of the chicken-scratched chords of "How Long Is Forever," while the dubby "Sitting in Limbo" comes equipped with heavy bass and fiddle lines echoplexed and squiggling in the distance. However, Nelson rarely deviates from his usual delivery. On a set comprised of his own old tunes in island settings, his voice is the least pliant element in the mix. He talks his way through chestnuts like "One in a Row" the same as ever, stiff and dragging behind the beat.
Toots from the Maytals (who knows a thing or two about mixing Southern music with reggae, turning "Country Roads" into a rasta hit years ago) steals Johnny Cash's "I'm a Worried Man" out from under his host. Nelson does fare slightly better when he tackles Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come," beating its plowshare into something useful for country's fields. But overall Countryman feels like watching every Cheech & Chong movie back-to-back; it's a much better idea when high than when sober.