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September 1, 2014

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Country legend tries something not so new

Who: Willie Nelson

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Buffalo Bill's Star of the Desert Arena, Primm

Tickets: $22.50, $28.50

Information: Call (800) FUN-STOP

LOS ANGELES -- Willie Nelson's fans will be able to take a cue from the lyrics to Nelson's "Night Life" and "listen to the blues they're playin' " when Island Records releases the veteran country singer/songwriter's album "Milk Cow Blues" Sept. 19.

Nelson is joined by veterans B.B. King, Dr. John, and Francine Reed and young luminaries Susan Tedeschi, Jonny Lang, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Keb' Mo' for an all-blues program that includes reinterpretations of Nelson's own classics and versions of several blues war horses.

Nelson, who performs Saturday at Buffalo Bill's Star of the Desert Arena in Primm, points out that the blues is a formidable part of his musical resources.

"The title song, 'Milk Cow Blues,' is a song I've been doin' onstage every night of my life since I can remember," he says. "I heard it first through western swing pioneer Bob Wills. I learned it from him, along with other blues songs. 'Basin Street Blues' and some of those other traditional things I learned through western swing music. It all was tied together a long time ago and I realized that I knew a lot of blues songs and I had written some blues songs, like 'Night Life' and "Rainy Day Blues' and things like that, so it was sort of a natural to want to do it."

Nelson says the album had its genesis four or five years ago when he was between labels. Nelson and Clifford Antone, owner of the Austin, Texas, blues nightclub Antone's, had long discussed the idea of making a blues album. Nelson began cutting an all-blues set at his Pedernales Studio near Austin with several musicians from the Antone's house band-guitarist Derek O'Brien (who co-produced with Freddy Fletcher), drummer George Rains, bassist Jon Blondell and keyboardist Riley Osbourn.

Recalling the album's complicated history, Nelson says, "Then, I don't know, we just let the tracks lay there for a while until somethin' developed, because I knew that somewhere along the line we'd find a spot or a way or somethin' to put it out, 'cause it was good. At that time I had just finished doin' the album 'Spirit' on my own there in Austin, with my band. I was lookin' for a spot for it.

"Producer Don Was called and thought that we should do a reggae album and Chris Blackwell would like to put it out on Island," Nelson says. "So we went in the studio and did one of my songs, 'Right Or Wrong,' did it reggae style, took it down and played it for Chris and he liked it. He said, 'OK, we'll put it out.' I just happened to have a copy of 'Spirit' there, played that for him. He loved that and it was ready, so we put that out then thinking that we were going to put out the reggae album later. Blackwell left the label, so the reggae album got put on the back shelf there, so there was a window there to do somethin'. So here comes the blues album."

After Island gave the renewal of the project a green light, Nelson says, "Derek and Freddy Fletcher flew around to different parts of the country, recording the different acts. B.B. was in L.A.; I was there at the time so he and I got to do 'The Thrill Is Gone' and 'Night Life' together. Susan Tedeschi and Jonny Lang did their parts separately, as well as Keb' Mo' and Dr. John. Fran Reed and I got to do hers together there at the studio in Austin. That's one of the last things we did."

Nelson will maintain his customary heavy touring schedule (including a Farm Aid date Sept. 17 at Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Va.) through the summer and fall. He also made an A&E "Live By Request" appearance in late August.

With his blues set finally completed, Nelson plans to return to his long-in-gestation reggae album. He says he has finished covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and "Sitting In Limbo" and some reggae versions of his own tunes.

He says, "It's been decided now that we'd like to do a little more to it and go to Jamaica, Don Was and I, maybe go down there and hang out with some of those guys and work on it a little bit more, fine-tune it and make sure we're doin' it right."

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