by Mike Devlin
Songs from the first half of the last century occupy a special place in Willie Nelson’s heart.
The collection of songs is generally referred to as the Great American Songbook. Nelson, however, knows them by another classification.
To him, they are simply “the good songs.”
The country legend has revisited these classic compositions numerous times throughout his 50-year professional career, first tackling the divide between pop and country in the early ‘60s.
“Angel Eyes, in particular, is one of my all-time favourite songs ever written,” Nelson, sitting backstage at a tour stop in Pawtucket, R.I., said of the song made famous by Frank Sinatra.
“Songs like that, and Moonlight in Vermont, they are just so good.”
That his left-turns have been met with varying degrees of commercial and artistic success matters little to the 76-year-old Nelson. He sees it as a way of reconnecting with his past: As a young child in the 1940s, Nelson studied the music of Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael, the popular sheet music of the day, and eventually taught himself how to play.
Nelson, like many growing up in tiny Abbott, Tex., had no television as a child, so his ears were always tuned to the radio. His fondness for pre-World War II songs never wavered, even when the country bug bit him big-time in 1944, once Grand Ole Opry live broadcasts were syndicated nationally. That same year, Nelson, then a crafty, wiry 10-year-old, played some of his first gigs away from home as a guitar player in a polka band.
He’s been breaking rules ever since.
Once he became famous, it appeared that his voice — which Nelson himself likened to “a girl’s” early on — was made for country music alone. Of course, Nelson never truly saw things the same way. When the world’s most famous country singer made the decision to tackle what he calls “my favourite 10 songs” for 1978’s Stardust — standards he’d known and loved since he was a child — outlaw country fans were left more than a little slackjawed.
“When I did Stardust, a lot of people said, ‘You’re crazy, those are old songs. People won’t buy them.’ But I had enough faith in the songs and the music itself to know that it didn’t matter if they were old or new. People don’t forget good songs. If it was a hit at one time, people will want to hear it again later.”
Not that Nelson needed to reinvent himself. Just three years prior, Red Headed Stranger, now considered one of the best country albums in history, provided Nelson with his first No. 1 hit; its followup, Wanted! The Outlaws, a 1976 country compilation featuring Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, gave country music its first million-seller.
Nelson felt revived by what Stardust had given him — critical and commercial success on his own terms. He would be a presence on country radio for many years to come (107 singles by Nelson charted between 1962 and 1993, including 20 No. 1 hits), but every few years he would dip back into the catalogue of jazz and pop standards, as on 1981’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, 1988’s What a Wonderful World and 1994’s Moonlight Becomes You.
“Personally, I like that music,” he said. I’ve done a lot of standards, and there’s probably hundreds that I haven’t done. I just enjoy doing albums like that, and as long as they sell, the record companies will still want you to do one.”
Nearly everyone was ready for another Nelson standards recording, which prompted the release of American Classic, the official followup to Stardust, due in stores Tuesday.
The idea came to fruition a year or two ago, around the time Nelson’s first effort for the Blue Note record label, a rollicking collaboration with jazz legend Wynton Marsalis titled Two Men With the Blues, was about to hit stores. The project was a resounding success (it was Nelson’s highest-charting album since 1982), which sped up discussions about another jazz-related project.
The head of Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall, had signed Nelson to Columbia Records back in the ‘70s and was involved during the making of Stardust, so talk between the two friends was minimal, Nelson said.
“I like Bruce. He’s a great friend and we’ve done a lot of things together. He believed in me with the Wynton Marsalis project we did and that turned out well for all of us, so when he wanted to do this album, I said, ‘C’mon let’s do it.’ ”
The recording of American Classic was somewhat more involved, though not by much. Tommy LiPuma, the album’s producer, went with pianist Joe Sample to Nelson’s home in Austin, Tex. (he also has one in Maui) in order to go over possible song choices.
Not long after, the selection process was finalized and American Classic was on its way, Nelson said.
“When we picked the ones we wanted to do, I sat there with a guitar and picked the keys, and pretty much the feel that we wanted on it, and then Joe went away and wrote the arrangements. It was really easy.”
The studio sessions for American Classic, which includes gems like Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Nearness of You, and Fly me to the Moon, along with Nelson’s re-recording of one of his biggest hits, Always On My Mind, which won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1983, were done at studios in New York and Los Angeles long associated with music of this vintage.
Everything about American Classic was dramatically different from the sessions that resulted in Stardust. The thread which ties both together, according to Nelson, was the difficulty of the music being performed.
“Those beautiful melodies seem simple, but in order to do those chords and get that feel, there not that easy to do. It takes a Tommy LiPuma, Joe Sample, and some great musicians to play that way, and really make you like it. Those songs are beautiful songs and have great melodies, but you need to know the material pretty good before you go in the studio. They are a challenge.”
Praise from collaborators on the project, including Diana Krall and Norah Jones, has been effusive. Most make reference to his historic vocal abilities. Once an acquired taste, Nelson’s voice now ranks among the best of all-time, coming in at No. 88 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 Best Singers in history.
“I’ve been singing all my life, because my grandmother was a voice teacher and a voice coach, and that helped me a lot,” he said. “She kept telling about deep breathing — breathing from the diaphragm, she called it — to give you power and strength in your lungs. That kind of thinking affected me a lot.”
Both Nelson’s grandparents were teachers, and for a spell, he was an elementary school teacher, too. Those days aren’t over. Everyone is a teacher, Nelson said, and we’re all students. Nelson said he feels is indebted to pass what he knows along to younger generations.
“I was taught that you help each other. We’re all in it together. I got a lot of help from a lot of people I didn’t know when I was coming up. I don’t look at it as a responsibility — it’s a pleasure to help. I do know that there’s a lot of artists that I learned from and there’s a lot of music I recorded and passed on, and there’s others guys coming up doing the same thing, writing new stuff, plus making sure that the good old stuff gets brought forward.”