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).