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Music Review: Willie Nelson – American Classic

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American Classic, a title befitting the artist himself, finds Willie Nelson returning to the Great American Songbook in a sequel to his best-selling crossover album 1978’s Stardust. This return may be influenced by his recent outstanding work of jazz and blues standards with Wynton Marsalis. Here, producer Tommy LiPuma gathered pianist Joe Sample, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash to accompany Nelson, whose cohort Mickey Raphael shows up playing harmonica on a few tracks.

Opening with Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” Nelson is enveloped in a smooth string arrangement as he offers gentle proclamations of love. While the sentiment is the same, the Hammond organ on Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” is a fantastic addition.

On Arlen & Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” the band evokes the options as Sample’s piano creates bright notes while Nash’s brushwork evokes the rain. McBride’s bass keeps a smooth rhythm as the whole piece gliding along. Much like when Fats Waller sang “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Willie’s rendition brings a slight smile because how can anyone believe the rascal would be on good behavior. The Hammond briefly returns on the song's bridge. On Hammerstein & Wilkinson’s “Because of You” a saxophone joins into the mix.

The album features duets with two of the biggest female jazz vocalists. Diana Krall’s silk, sultry voice is so bewitching on “If I Had You” all she needs to do is ask and the man will be there. On the bridge an electric guitar solos and then the piano follows in the same pattern. As much as I love her voice, Norah Jones on “Baby, It's Cold Outside” doesn’t entirely work because of the age difference, similar to the problem with Woody Allen romancing young leading ladies in his later movies. There’s even a brief moment of creepiness as Nelson keeps trying to get Jones to stay against her wishes, plying her with drink which causes her to wonder, “Say, what's in this drink.” While it makes perfect sense to include the women from a marketing standpoint, their talents as singers are so impressive they make Willie seem like some guy pulled off the street.

Willie revisits two of his own songs: “Angel Eyes” from the 1984 album of the same name and his classic “Always On My Mind,” the latter of which I think works better with the standards arrangement its given here, fully aware I may be committing country-music sacrilege.

While American Classic probably won’t match the success of Stardust, it is a very pleasant album of love songs that finds Nelson doing his part to keep the past alive and reminding how relevant it still remains.

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About Gordon S. Miller

Gordon S. Miller is the artist formerly known as El Bicho, the nom de plume he used when he first began reviewing movies online for The Masked Movie Snobs in 2003. Before the year was out, he became that site's publisher. Over the years, he has also contributed to a number of other sites as a writer and editor, such as FilmRadar, Film School Rejects, High Def Digest, and Blogcritics. He is the Publisher of Cinema Sentries. Some of his random thoughts can be found at twitter.com/ElBicho_CS
  • This is a really good album. I actually tried to catch him during his tour with Bob Dylan and J.C. Mellancamp (odd choice to add to the tour), but the tickets were out.

    I did manage to get an early release on this album and pretty much was and am still amazed that at 73 he can tour as hard as he does and make albums like this that are WAY above the avg. I think billboard rated it as one of the highest for the month.

    I don’t know if you watch HDNet much, but they have been showing a lot of extended type promo spots showing Willie with Norah Jones and the Marsalis brothers. His guitar looks as old as him and sounds as unique as his voice meshed with Norah Jones.

    Cool review. Glad someone picked this up.

    R.P.M. :: Riddled Phantasms Magazine

  • Dusty Hixenbaugh

    Nice review. I posted my comments about the same album today, too, and we share many of the same impressions. I also thought the age difference between Willie and Norah made “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” a creepy listen, but given the bevy of covers of that particular song, maybe this one needs a predatorial edge to stand apart from the rest.