Album Review: Willie Nelson–American Classic
Willie Nelson—American Classic—Blue Note—2009
The story behind Willie Nelson’s landmark 1978 album Stardust is one of the great plot twists in country music history. It goes like this: Willie is riding the wave of Outlaw mania, after a series of renegade country classics in the early ’70s and the release of the 1976 Wanted! album with Waylon Jennings. How does Willie capitalize on the nation’s hunger for truck-drivin’ good-ol’-boy country? By doubling down on the rebellion and turning in a collection of Tin Pan Alley standards by Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins, etc., a move that his label, Columbia, attempts to veto as a career-killing disaster. However, the album becomes Willie’s biggest hit ever, reaching #1 on the country charts, selling more than five million copies, winning Willie a Grammy for vocal performance, and launching him into mainstream superstardom.
American Classic, his first solo album for Blue Note (last year, the label released Willie’s successful collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men with the Blues) is being billed as the “long-awaited follow-up” to Stardust, some 31 years down the road. Nelson, though, has returned to this style a few times since ’78—you can imagine how Columbia would have engorged enough crow to beg him to make Stardust II almost immediately. The second side of the crazily-overlooked One for the Road with Leon Russell from 1979, for instance, is nothing but super-spare readings of songs like Irving Berlin’s “Always” and the Gershwins’ “Summertime” and features Nelson at his absolute vocal prime. Then there’s 1981’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a deliberate attempt to return to the template, this time with weaker material and glossier arrangements. The last redux was 1994’s Moonlight Becomes You, a Great American Songbook hodgepodge—the timing was once again controversial, coming just after Across the Borderline, Willie’s most successful country album in years. Columbia, forgetting the lessons of ’78, balked again and this time kept their foot down, forcing Willie to jump ship to the tiny Justice label. He’d never record for Columbia again.
So while American Classic isn’t exactly Stardust‘s first sequel, there are reasons to consider it a true follow-up. First is the involvement of Bruce Lundvall, who signed Willie to Columbia back in the early ’70s, and now heads Blue Note, so it’s a reunion of sorts. And, unlike some of the above-mentioned records, American Classic is rooted exclusively in jazz idioms; producer Tommy LiPuma (Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble) keeps things spare and loose with little more than trickling piano, floating bass lines, and barely-there percussive brushstrokes. The accompaniments, particular the playing of ace pianist Joe Sample, are uniformly first-rate. Check out the frenetic baseball-stadium organ solo on “Fly Me to the Moon”—sure, it feels a bit out of place, but it livens up an old chestnut that could use it.
Willie’s vocal performance, too, reverts to the laid-back delivery that defined his takes on songs like “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” He has long been compared to jazz vocalists due to his ahead-of-the-beat phrasing (Waylon’s old line: “Backphrasing, my ass; you just ain’t got no rhythm”), and his tendency to rush through lines has become a hard habit that shows up on American Classic. His voice, at age 76, is a slightly craggier instrument now—he growls more in his lower register, and when he pushes for notes at the top, as on “Come Rain or Come Shine,” it’s brassier than it used to be, but all things considered, Willie’s vocals are remarkably strong and clear throughout the record. People like to argue superlatives, and George Jones might get the most votes for Greatest Country Singer Ever, but no country vocalist has ever sung as much diverse material better than Willie Nelson, and the new record is yet more supportive evidence.
Not to belabor the Stardust connection, but the key difference here is that Stardust was recorded by Willie’s own band of ragtag hippies, defined by the rubbery rhythm section of Paul English and Bee Spears and the singular cry of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica. American Classic, while refreshingly understated, is clearly more polished, so when Mickey shows up on “Since I Fell For You” and “Angel Eyes,” it feels like goin’ home. Willie’s own guitar makes but a single appearance on the album, alongside Mickey’s harp in the middle of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a welcome touch, as Willie plays a more gentle solo than at any time in recent memory.
Song selection will make or break a project like this one, and the team of LiPuma and Sample narrowed some 40 songs down to the 12 that ended up on American Classic. It’s a set that leans heavily on Sinatra-associated material (“Fly Me to the Moon,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Angel Eyes”), but the Chairman gobbled up so many of the great songs in his day, you always run that risk. What tends to work better here is the slightly lesser-known material like “If I Had You,” a serene duet with Diana Krall, or “I Miss You So,” featuring one of Willie’s best vocal takes. “Because of You” is another gem with its sultry saxophone solo—it’s one to swoon to. The one that folks will talk about is the duet between Willie and the 50-years-younger Norah Jones on “Baby, It’s Cold Outide,” a pairing that proves that blizzards know no boundaries when it comes to love.
The album ends with an update of “Always on my Mind,” an interesting decision. While his 1982 mega-hit needed no improvement, it ends up working here. After all, no one ever gets tired of hearing it, and it’s a song that Willie has always sung extraordinarily well; even on ramshackle live performances, he tended to ease up on phrasing liberties, maintaining the song’s indelible melody. Bob Dylan once marveled at how Willie made everyone forget Elvis’s version of “Always on my Mind,” a feat previously thought impossible. On American Classic, Willie turns in a beautiful version, even though it’s a song that, over that last 25 years, he has sung into a live microphone more times than he’s showered. Its inclusion here ends up being both a reminder of the passing of time and a celebration of what we still have.
Recording a collection of pop standards isn’t the statement it once was, but Willie was never that big on musical statements anyway, unless the statement was that he’ll make whatever kind of music he damn well pleases. I reviewed his best-of-the-’00s collection Lost Highway here on No Depression just a few days ago, remarking on the perils and pleasures of Willie’s prolific output. It’s fun to pick the hits and misses of the last few years, but it’s impossible to poke holes in a record as non-stop sublime as American Classic. And, yes, they got the title right. Damned if it isn’t.