One of the great musicians and songwriters, Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr.—aka Dr. John—pulled together musical influences like a gambler yanking the lever at a casino slot machine. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock, and his hometown New Orleans funk merely scratch the surface of the good doctor’s deft ability to transcend genres.
Dr. John also had a deep appreciation for classic country-and-western music, songs he first heard as a boy at his father’s record shop. When Dr. John passed in 2019 due to a heart attack, he was finishing a new album that would finally indulge his passion for country music. Now, fans get to hear the stunning results.
Things Happen That Way—which Garden & Gun is premiering today—includes a mixture of Dr. John originals as well as covers of songs by Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Sr., and others. Dr. John lays down a smoldering groove with his slow-burn take on Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and Nelson trades lines with Dr. John on a ragged-but-sweet cover of the country traditional “Gimme That Old Time Religion.” Dr. John pays homage to Williams with a loping version of “Ramblin’ Man” and a weary “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Fellow New Orleans icon Aaron Neville joins in for a joyful, horn-heavy take on the Traveling Wilburys’ “End of the Line.”
But the album hits paydirt with Dr. John’s original material. The dusty country lament of “Holy Water” references his time in prison in the ’60s for narcotics possession, followed by the bouncy “Sleeping Dogs Best Left Alone” and the nostalgic funk of “Give Myself a Good Talkin’ To.” Lukas Nelson—Willie’s son—and his band Promise of the Real contribute a rework of Dr. John’s classic “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” which first appeared on his 1968 debut album, Gris Gris. The new version turns the spooky voodoo vibe of the original into a soaring epic, sounding like Lukas, Dr. John, and Pink Floyd all jamming in a West Texas dive bar.
“He loved Hank Williams for the stories in his songs,” says Karla Pratt, Dr. John’s daughter and the executor of his estate. “He also loved the sound of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who was not only a country music inspiration, but a longtime friend. Dad paid close attention to how these greats crafted songs that linger with you, and he wanted to do that in his own style. He very much hoped to have both Willie and Lukas on this album.”
Released on Rounder Records, Things Happen That Way stands as a deeply intimate coda to Dr. John’s six-decade long career (though there are rumblings that more projects could be on the way). As his pal, veteran television producer Ken Ehrlich, writes in the album’s liner notes: “You just don’t listen to a [Dr. John] album the way you listen to others. You play a track, maybe move on to the next one, and then come back to the one you listened to before, because you know you missed some of the magic, and your ears are now ready for a second hit on the bottle.” Make that a double.
Listen to Things Happen That Way below. The album comes out this Friday, September 23, and is available for preorder here.