Recording of September 2009: American Classic

Willie Nelson: American Classic
Blue Note 5099926719726 (CD). 2009. Tommy LiPuma, prod.; Al Schmitt, Steve Genewick, engs. AAD? TT: 45:33
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

In 1978, in partnership with Booker T. Jones, Willie Nelson decided to throw the music business and the listening public a curveball with Stardust. Stepping out of the "outlaw" country persona that had revolutionized and saved country music—which, by the early 1970s, had become formulaic and isolated from the changes sweeping American society since the late '60s—Nelson became a hip cabaret singer. The set was the cream of the Great American Songbook: the handiwork of Berlin, Carmichael, and Gershwin. Nelson's favorite song, "Moonlight in Vermont," received an especially exquisite reading. The reaction was bewildered adulation. Suddenly, country music was slightly cooler. Just as suddenly, Nelson was catapulted into the pantheon of great American singers. For the 1999 reissue of Stardust, in a liner note written by his longtime friend and bandmate Mickey Raphael, Nelson laid out his motivations.

"I knew there were millions of people who loved these songs, and would love to hear them again. I grew up with them . . . they're some of the first songs I learned to play. The fact that we did 'Stardust,' 'Georgia On My Mind,' 'Blue Skies' just opened up the possibilities of getting a wider audience to listen. From the older people who remember these songs, to the ones who never heard them before . . . a great song is still a great song."

Producer Booker T., who also played keyboards and organ on Stardust, remembered, in the same liner notes, the vibe of a session that, after hearing the record, many a fan wondered about. From Jones's recollection it's also clear how he and the famously, ummmm . . . laid-back Willie were simpatico: "How had our heritages, our lifestyles, matched in such a way that could come to this? Blues, jazz, country, what was it? We didn't know. We didn't care. None of the band members, or crew, cared. We just played. And we had a good time."

A No.1 hit on the country charts, Stardust also hit No.5 on the pop charts, eventually went quintuple platinum, and remains the biggest-selling record of Nelson's long career. Attempts to reprise its success—with Somewhere Over the Rainbow (1981) and, to a lesser degree, with Always On My Mind (1982)—were less successful. Now, with American Classic, Nelson has returned yet again to the standards format.

As proof that Nelson's fame cuts across boundaries, American Classic was produced by famed R&B/jazz producer Tommy LiPuma, Chairman Emeritus of the Verve Music Group since 2004, and yet is being released on the rival Blue Note label. The ageless Johnny Mandel was brought aboard to write the orchestral arrangements, and an A-list band was assembled that includes Joe Sample, Christian McBride, and Anthony Wilson. Engineer Al Schmitt gets a warm, close-miked recording that accurately captures the details and shadings of Nelson voice.

Because Stardust used up so many of Nelson's very favorite songs, and many of the most obvious choices from the Tin Pan Alley canon, any subsequent standards set is bound to have a less star-studded lineup of tunes, and thus suffer in comparison to the sparkling Stardust. Yet Nelson's singing, with his unpredictable phrasing turns and well-known ability to jump in just ahead of the beat, still make American Classic an essential listen. He's so low-key that his vocal strengths aren't immediately apparent, but in an equally low-key, slow-paced session like this, close listening allows the richness to rise from the laser's work.

Although Nelson's singing has always been eccentric but aglow, age has given his voice a lower, burnished quality that accentuates the man's manifest spirituality. While not technically accomplished, his vocals have instant soul and prove yet again that strange truism that you don't have to have a great voice to be a great singer. His anima and his 50 years' experience as a singer, have together taught him to emphasize words, holding on to some longer than others, and also to use, to spectacular advantage, that most Willie of all vocal tendencies: the descending line that quickly trails off. It's with that last quality that he so often puts his distinctive stamp on a tune, no matter how many other un-toppable versions exist. Take "Fly Me to the Moon," for example. Inexorably associated with Frank Sinatra, here it takes on an entirely new hue, thanks in part to a Hammond B-3 (always Willie's best accompanying instrument) and the way he makes the lines his own. On the second verse he takes the first line into a quick descent, "Fill my heart with song," before pulling up to linger over the last three words of the line "and let me sing forever more."

The finest performance here is Nelson's exuberant cruise through the Fats Waller classic "Ain't Misbehavin'." Again led by the organ, Willie wends his beautiful way through the tune, emphasizing those adoring sentiments of staying home, "just me and my radio," eschewing temptation while "saving all my love for you." It's another gorgeous example of why Nelson has transcended genres and foiled any easy categorization of his talent.

Because American Classic is a fall 2009 release, a holiday tune, the old call-and-response Dean Martin chestnut "Baby, It's Cold Outside" made it onto the record, with Norah Jones singing the part of reluctant visitor. The duet never quite catches fire, but there are moments when Jones's playfulness and Willie's humorous lothario tone make for an effective performance.

And speaking of duets, Diana Krall, who's sung with Nelson before—there's a YouTube performance of her and husband Elvis Costello singing "Crazy" with Nelson that's worth a look—returns for a nuanced intertwining on "If I Had You." The set ends with Nelson revisiting a hit from earlier in his career, "Always On My Mind."

In an era of auto tuners, a hits first mentality, and manufactured celebrity, Willie Nelson exudes and excels at being real. He is truly an American classic.—Robert Baird