Chet Flippo reviews Willie Nelson’s projects

by Chet Flippo

Willie Nelson is going to live forever, I am completely convinced. Approaching age 76, he’s still on the road and has two new music projects that are proof of his lasting appeal and of his own endurance.

Nelson has had his share of duds with all the collaborations he’s recorded over the years, but he scored a major musical success with his last pairing when he linked talents with jazzman Wynton Marsalis on Two Men With the Blues. Now, Nelson returns with another very musically satisfying pairing.

With Asleep at the Wheel, Willie turns Willie and the Wheel into another tour de force. This is big, adventurous, sometimes swaggering music, as the best Western swing always was. Sporting a full horn section, the Wheel are still blasting it. Willie sounds good, his picking is as determined as ever, and his musical instincts are still on course. Such vintage songs as “Hesitation Blues” and “Right or Wrong” are pure musical joy. This album actually had its seed sown decades ago when Willie was signed by Atlantic Records wise man Jerry Wexler. He pushed Willie for years on the notion of this sort of musical link with the great Western swing tradition that was uniquely Texan. Wexler died in 2008 at age 91 before he could hear the final result.

This record owes its musical heritage to the father of Western swing, the late Bob Wills, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the new reissue of Wills’ The Tiffany Transcriptions. It’s a 10-CD boxed set, to be sure, but I just thought you’d like to know about it. Anything you need to know or hear about Western swing is right there in this comprehensive set of sophisticated jazz-and-blues-tinged country, recorded in 1945 as pre-packaged radio programs. Wills and His Texas Playboys were at their musical peak.

Naked Willie is due March 17. I know, the “Naked Willie” thought is a bit off-putting. But the album title refers to the music, not to Nelson’s body. This concept came from Willie’s longtime harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, who was listening to early Nelson tracks on RCA recorded in Nashville in the mid-1960s. Nelson was then at the height of his songwriting powers, and his hits for others — such as “Hello Walls” for Faron Young and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline — convinced RCA he could be a successful solo recording artist. But, in those days of the Nashville Sound and its bombastic over-production, they buried the tracks with nonsensical vocal choruses and syrupy string arrangements. Plus, Willie didn’t look much like a country star back then, more like a slightly seedy insurance salesman. And he insisted on singing off the beat. Which was not an accepted practice on Music Row in those days.

Raphael wanted to see what those original tracks would sound like stripped down — hence the “Naked” title — and proceeded to do so. Once he peeled away much of the extraneous audio goo, what he found is some remarkable music. Just Willie and his voice and acoustic guitar and such ace pickers as guitarist Grady Martin, drummer Buddy Harman, bassist Norbert Putnam and pianist Pig Robbins. And such seldom-heard Willie songs as “Happiness Lives Next Door,” “The Ghost” and “I Let My Mind Wander.”

Many of these songs are truly timeless and will be around as long as people still want to listen to … well … to good songs. No matter what genre.

If you’ve never envisioned Willie as being once young, well, yeah, he really was. And this is the way he sounded then. It sounds pretty damned good. I think he got better along the way, especially along about Red Headed Stranger time, but, hey, he was still comparatively young then. I guess the term “forever young” is purely relative when it comes to Willie. He still has some musical lessons to teach.

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