Willie Nelson sings Gershwin, “Summertime”

by:  Steve Morley

The songs of George and Ira Gershwin defined American popular culture in the 1930s, when a very young Willie Nelson was absorbing his earliest influences. The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize that Willie received in November 2015 was the impetus for his new all-Gershwin collection, but the real story here is the kindred spirit linking Willie and George Gershwin, the music-writing half of the sibling team. Both are known for blurring stylistic boundaries and, indeed,Summertime points to the sophistication that informs such genre-transcending Willie originals such as “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”

While he’s done nearly a dozen yesteryear-based solo albums, this one is distinguished by its smartly chosen representation of the Gershwins’ musical breadth and the handpicked, multi-stylistic band (with Mickey Raphael’s winsome yet penetrating harmonica again providing a crucial link to Willie’s larger body of work) fittingly snazzing up the affair while making the most of Willie’s no-dress-code musical fusion.

A pair of duets finds Sheryl Crow out of her element but clearly at ease on “Embraceable You” and Cyndi Lauper mostly in hers, camping it up like a Bronx flapper in a Busby Berkeley movie on the amusing if slight “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”At times, it all sounds a bit too perspiration-free, but the 82-year-old summons spunk where needed and shines on the album’s blues-styled departure, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

While Willie’s formula is now well established, subtle signs of his ongoing artistic growth crop up on a revisited take of “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Displaying a deep, moving interpretation and an easy yet elegant shuffle rhythm, it far outstrips the more straightforward version on his groundbreaking 1978Stardust album—the original vintage-song venture that industry execs swore would derail his career.

As the Gershwins themselves said it in 1936, Who’s got the last laugh now?

Leave a Reply