Willie and the Wheel (Washington Post Review)

Back From Ridiculous, Willie Offers a Swing Sublime
By J. Freedom du Lac

For several years, the iconoclastic singer-songwriter Willie Nelson has been surrounding himself with unlikely musical collaborators, from pop ditz Jessica Simpson and jazzman Wynton Marsalis to the rapper Snoop Dogg, with whom Nelson shares an abiding love of lighting up — and seemingly little else.

The pairings have produced more misses than hits as Nelson’s musical proffer has become wildly uneven. (Witness Nelson’s dreadful 2005 reggae experiment, “Countryman,” which should be filed in record bins under Jamaica Mistake.)

But for Nelson’s new album, “Willie and the Wheel,” he found the perfect partners: Western swing preservationists Asleep at the Wheel, who helped the aging country outlaw get in touch with his inner Bob Wills, to marvelously vibrant effect.

Bright, playful and exploding with verve, “Willie and the Wheel” is one of the first great albums of 2009.

It’s also one of the year’s most anachronistic new releases, as it’s filled with Western swing standards associated with the likes of Milton Brown, Spade Cooley and Wills — titans of the joyous genre that first began taking hold in dance halls throughout the American Southwest during the Great Depression.

Ideal timing for a Western swing revival, then! Except that this album was supposed to happen more than three decades ago.

Nelson’s unique blend of musical Americana has long hinted at his affinity for the hot hillbilly string music of the 1930s and ’40s. And in the early 1970s, when Nelson was at the peak of his commercial powers, he was urged by the famed Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler to record an album of Western swing songs; Wexler even began compiling a list of cover candidates.

But Nelson and Atlantic divorced before sessions began on the project, and the idea was shelved until 2007, when Wexler and Nelson dusted off the concept — and the classics — with the help of Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, a friend of both men. (Wexler, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, died in August, though not before hearing the album’s dozen songs.) 

With Asleep at the Wheel playing the role of the Texas Playboys (albeit Playboys punched up with horns), “Willie and the Wheel” is a sprightly and very much swinging romp through the American genre that blended country, blues and rural folk music with Dixieland and, of course, swing jazz.

Nelson sounds like an absolute natural in these environs, which is no surprise given the genre’s jazz roots and Nelson’s own improvisational sense of melody and, especially, phrasing. His swooping, weathered warble usually occupies the space just behind the beat; rarely will he sit right on it. That distinctive style works particularly well in the freewheeling settings of “Willie and the Wheel,” beginning with the opening “Hesitation Blues,” on which Nelson’s vocals dart over and around the shuffling rhythm as the instrumental lines drop in and out: hot fiddles, rollicking piano, feisty steel guitar.

A wicked solo seems to lurk around every corner, with steel-guitar ace Eddie Rivers starring repeatedly, as in the frisky closer, “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon.” Rivers even manages to outshine special guest Vince Gill on an update of the old instrumental “South.” The album’s two-four rhythms are irresistible, and the harmony vocals, which sound like something out of a barbershop, are pure blasts of sunshine on songs such as “Sweet Jennie Lee” and “Oh! You Pretty Woman.”

The standout, though, might be “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World,” a loping, almost woozy song in which Nelson and the Wheel’s honey-voiced honky-tonker Elizabeth McQueen trade lead lines as if they’ve been doing duets since Wills and Brown formed the Light Crust Doughboys, in 1931. It’s a serious upgrade over Snoop.

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