The one time I saw Willie Nelson in concert — this was in an outdoor rodeo arena at Cheyenne Frontier Days — he took a few songs to warm up, to settle in, to really sell his material. Then he rocked.
Maybe that's just the way Willie rolls. His newest record, American Classic follows a similar trajectory, though its end result is more shuffle than rock. The album takes a few songs, maybe even one complete listen, before it feels warm, settled and authentic, before it feels less like an impostor and more like a genial stepbrother to the rest of Willie's admittedly idiosyncratic discography.
This isn't Willie Nelson's first collection of standards. That distinction belongs to 1978's Stardust, which critics said sounded Willie's death-knoll but which actually won him a Grammy and became his best-selling (and maybe his best-liked) album to date. Three decades ago, Stardust was audacious. Today, an album of innocuous pop hits is a common a move for a veteran musician. An entire standards genre, sometimes miscategorized "easy listening," is in full-swing, dominated by Rod Stewart's indiscriminate Great American Songbook, Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits of the [insert decade here], and Bette Midler's Bette Sings the [insert crooner here] Songbook series. Even Dolly Parton, whose genre roots aren't far from Willie's, often polishes up rusty oldies from unlikely sources like Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson, and Bread.
Now, I can't make a case for anyone more qualified than Willie Nelson to compile a list of tunes that merit the title "American Classic". The man has been on the music scene in one role or another for nearly fifty years, and — lest we forget it — he himself penned songs like "Crazy" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" that remain so beloved decades later that they don't require inclusion on an album like this to remind us they're classics. If I have one complaint about the songs on American Classic, it's that they're not as classic as many of Willie's originals.
At the outset of this review, I said the album takes some time to warm up. Let me be more specific: The disc takes exactly four minutes and forty-five seconds, the entire running length of its first track, "The Nearness of You", to warm up. Made famous by Glen Miller in the 1930s, the song is familiar to 21st century listeners because of Norah Jones — who, coincidentally, also makes a guest appearance on this album. It opens with a soft bath of piano and orchestra, neither of which is an obvious accompaniment to Willie's trademark wispy/raspy vocals, and it establishes the comfortable tempo that marks the whole album, but otherwise it's an unremarkable cover.