Tom Sinclair
May 23, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s like déjà vu all over again,” says Willie Nelson of the imminent release of his long-delayed reggae CD, Countryman. Reports that Nelson was recording a reggae album started circulating in 1995, when Nelson and producer Don Was began work on the project in L.A. They had the enthusiastic blessing of Chris Blackwell, who signed Bob Marley and is the former head of Nelson’s then label, Island. ”But then there was a big shake-up at Island, and Chris left the label,” says Nelson. ”And because it was such an ‘outside the box’ project, the record company was leery about it after that.”

Without a champion, the tracks for Countryman were left ”sitting in limbo,” to invoke the title of a Jimmy Cliff song Nelson covers on the disc. ”But I kept wanting somebody to do something about the reggae album,” he says. And now, finally, Lost Highway is putting it out.

Nelson is the first to admit the CD is hardly by-the-book reggae. ”It couldn’t be with me singing it,” he laughs. ”I put a country touch on everything I do.” No lie. A cover of ”The Harder They Come” sounds more like a lost Hank Williams ballad than something you’d hear in a Jamaican dance hall; ”Worried Man,” his collaboration with Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals, comes closer to hitting the mark, but still sounds like roots music sprinkled with eau de reggae.

Even so, Nelson is pleased with the results. ”Reggae and country aren’t that far apart,” he says. ”I was talking with Toots, and he said that when he was coming up a lot of Jamaicans would put reggae rhythms to country songs.”

And need we point out that renowned cannabis hound Nelson fits perfectly into the ganja-obsessed Rasta subculture? ”Just wait until people see the album cover,” he says. ”It’s a big ol’ marijuana leaf.” Déjà vu, indeed.

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