Whether you like his voice or not – and there’s ample justification for either position – Willie Nelson is arguably one of the great song stylists of our time.
He’s prolific in the extreme, cheerfully tackling just about any genre around. And there have been misses, to be sure – no one wants to talk too much about that reggae project from a few years back. But since his ground-breaking exploration of the Great American Songbook via 1978’s Stardust, he’s managed to put his stamp on a remarkably diverse body of work.
And while it’s become something of a cliché for aging artists to reach back to the classics, Stardust was one of the first. Coming out of left field, it found Willie and his working band exploring standards with a vaguely country feel, with Willie’s economical picking and Mickey Raphael’s incisive harmonica front and centre.
American Classic, due on August 25, is billed as a ‘long awaited follow up,’ though it takes a substantially different approach to another dozen timeless tracks. Produced by Tommy Lipuma, Willie’s band is nowhere in sight, save for a few brief appearances by Raphael. Instead we get phoned-in duets with go-to girls Diana Krall (“If I Had You”) and Norah Jones (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), and Johnny Mandel’s meticulous orchestral arrangements, with solos going primarily to creamy sax and tinkly piano.
LiPuma’s production is impeccable, and anyone familiar with his work on Krall’s spectacularly successful jazz vocal albums will know the sound. Except that here it’s Willie’s worn but still warm voice atop the lush curtain of strings that shimmer behind a restrained, softly swinging rhythm section.
The thing with Willie is that he never seems to trying too hard. Supremely confident, he’s invariably relaxed and assured, taking any song he tackles at his own easy pace. The pipes are by no means perfect, but Nelson knows exactly how to make the most of his limited range. Timing and subtle phrasing get his message across with effortless ease. Indeed, he quietly assumes command on every track, though the duet with Krall isn’t entirely convincing – Nelson’s rough-hewn crooning seems at odds with her cool, whispery delivery. (While the playfulness is subdued, he fares much better in the company of Ms. Jones, their voices a better blend and the chemistry more obvious).
Elsewhere, though, Nelson takes a breezy approach to such fare as “The Nearness Of You,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine.” Equally easy on the ears are “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “I Miss You So,” and “Because Of You.” Raphael’s harmonica enlivens an otherwise brooding “Angel Eyes” and a bluesy “Since I Fell For You,” before proceedings wrap up with another take on “You Were Always On My Mind,” a track Nelson recorded previously with great success.
Indeed, everything here is impeccable, from Nelson’s easy-going drawl to Mandel’s elegant arrangements. The core trio – pianist Joe Sample, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash – is augmented by Krall’s guitarist, Anthony Wilson, all players of the highest calibre. And while Nelson’s nasally quaver might not seem, on paper, an ideal fit for the elegance on display – cold beer in champagne company – he’s enough of a singer, and enough of an icon, to make it all work surprisingly well.
Though it’s nowhere near as groundbreaking as Stardust (both an artistic and commercially risky proposition at the time), this is a thoroughly satisfying collection. Nelson has become an ‘American classic’ himself, and the material here represents some of the finest songwriting of the 20th century. Nelson has nothing left to prove, and he approaches these songs as familiar old friends. Approach the disc in the same way, and it’s simply as good as it gets.