Willie Nelson’s, ‘American Classic’


Photograph by Ian Gittler / Used With Permission

Norton Center for the Arts
Center Stage Magazine
February/March 2010

The title of Willie Nelson’s solo debut on Blue Note Records, ‘American Classic,’ refers as much to the man himself as to the storied Tin Pan Alley repertoire he explore on this elegant new set.  While it’s common for pop stars to attempt to put their own stamp on the American songbook, Nelson practically invented the approach. He set the standard for, well, playing the standards more than thirty years ago with Stardust, perhaps this ‘outlaw’ entertainer’s most daring move, an album that many industry pundits thought would get him laughed off the charts and out of the biz.

Instead, the Booker T. Jone-produced Stardust — which showcased material from the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, and Kurt Weili, among others, in spare, easy-going arrangements — became the most successful album of his career at the time.  It reached #1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, racked up more than five million in sales; earned Nelson a Country Male Vocal Performance Grammy; and, most significantly, helped to transform a colorful cult figure into a mainstream star.  Encouraging Nelson to record Stardust was Bruce Lundvall, now Blue Note’s head, who had the prescience to sign Nelson to Columbia in the 1970s and, thirty years later, offer him a home at Blue Note.  Nelson’s first effort for the label was his acclaimed 2008 collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With The blues, a spirited live set that debuted at #20 on the Billboard pop chart.

Fans around the world know that the adventurous Nelson can sing just about anything, and with just about anyone he pleases.  As he sees it, “The more songs you know, the more musicians you listen to, he more music you hear, the better equipped you are to decide where you want to go nest.  That’ why I want to listen to everyone and everything and then decide which wa I want to go.  Then, of course, I might change my mind and go in an entirely different direction.  But at least I have all these options.”


On American Classic, he’s joined on vocals and piano by Diana Krall in an intimate rendition of If I Had You that feels more like pillow talk than mere wishful thinking.  (“It came off so well, she’s so smooth and her panco playing is the bet,” praises Nelson.)  He also duets with Nora Jones, countering playful protestations with romantic persuasion, on Frank Loesser’s Baby It’s Cold Outside.  (“That particular song has a lot of meaning for me,” Nelson admits, “and it’s obvious that I enjoy singing with her.”)  Backing musicians include such notable jazzmen as pianist Joe Sample, Bassist Christian McBride, Krall guitarist Anthony Wilson, and drummer Lewis Nash.  Nelson’s longtime sidekick Mickey Raphael, his memorable co-star on ‘Two Men With the Blues,’  plays harmonica, adding evocative, bluesy inflections to Angel Eye and Since I Fell For You.

American Classic represents old-school record-making at its most sumptuously swininging, with a lighthearted yet sophisticated jazz feel.  Three-time Grammy Award winning producer Tommy LiPuma, known for his best-selling work with Natalie Cole, Barbra Stresand, Anita Baker, Michael Buble, and Krall, among others, led the sessions, joined by his veteran engineer-mixer colleague, Al Schmitt.  Legendary composer-arranger Johnny Mandel contributed orchestral charts.

When Blue Note chief Lundvall floated the idea of a standards album a la Stardust to LiPuma, the producer recalls.  “I said, ‘Man, are you kidding?  I love Willie and, on top of that, Stardust is my favorite album.  Joe Sample and I work a lot together, so I thought I would use Joe to do the rhythm charts and set things up.  Joe lives in Houston, and it’s just a drive to Austin for him.  We both visited Willie and went over numerous songs with him, maybe 30 to 40 songs.”

Much of the repertoire, Nelson explains, “Was picked by Tommy and Joe.  They came to the house and we sat around and talked about songs, like The Nearness of You and Angel Eyes, which is one of my favorite jazz standards.  We talked about a lot of great standards.”

The key to the project, notes LiPuma, “was that we all realized how much we loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.  That brought us all together.  I was a big fan of Wills, as was Joe; Willie, of courses, was a huge fan, as well as a huge fan of Django Reinhardt.  So after we chose the songs and got the keys and all that stuff, we left a day or so to figure out what made the most ense as far as Willie was concerned, what Willie felt the most comfortable with.  We ended up with a Django/Bob Wills feel to the arrangements, and Willie fell right into it.  The Nearness of You was one of the first things that jumped right out, and from there we wended up doing about 16 or 17 tracks, then knocking it down to the ones we put on the album.”

Nelson and LiPuma spent four days in December, 2008, at Legacy Studios in Manhattan, and then reconvened in February at the storied Capital Studio A in Los Angeles, where Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole cut many of their best-known sides, to work with Diana Krall.  Throughout the sessions, Nelson’s singing restrained its easygoing charm.  There’s warmth and humour in his delivery, along with some twinkle-in-the-eye sex appeal.  Just check out his rendition of On The treet Where You Live, and you can feel the eternal spring in his step.

Remarks LiPuma, “Willie is just he best to work with.  Hes a very sweet cat.  You just go in there and if you get something and it feels right, it’s right.  You don’t belabor it.  That’s the way I like to work, too.  And that’s basically how it was, we went into Legacy and within four days we got all 17 tracks.  We did the Diana Krall duet in L.A..  One take and boom, we were finished.  Twenty minutes.  That was it.  The rhythm section really had a sense as to what Willie was all about.  All these guys were just so respectful of the guy and what he did.  They’re great musicians in their own right, but they all had huge respect for him and gave him all the room in the world.”

As a Nashville artist in the ’60s, Nelson himself penned more than a few tunes that have arguably become American classics themselves, including Crazy, Night Life, and the sublime Funny How Time Slips Away.  But that was just the prologue for the iconoclastic singer-songwriter, who would redraw the borders of country music in the ’70s after moving back to Texas and settling in the musical melting pot of Austin.  Along with fellow traveler Waylon Jennings, Nelson was labeled the outlaw of the genre, but he was more visionary than rebel, especially with the way he attracted rock fans to take a closer look at country.  He was celebrated for his work with buddies like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, but scaled even greater chart heights by singing, improbably enough, with Julio Iglesias (To All the Girls I Loved Before).  Along with Marsalis, recent cohort have included Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and reggae icon Ziggy Marley.

Nelson ends the album with a re-interpretation of You Were Always On My Mind, the one-time Elvis Presley hit that Nelson took to #1 on the country chart and to Top Five on the pop chart in teh early eighties.  Looking back for a moment, Nelson decides, “Hopefully, I’m a better singer.  Hopefully, I’m a better guitar player, you’re either going to get better or worse; you can’t stay in one spot.  I like to think that the band and I have progressed alot and learned a lot from doing these songs.  There is truth in the statement that you learn by doing, so the more you do ’em, the better you get.”  American Classic, then, is clearly Nelson at his best.

American Classic

Track List:

  • The Nearness of You
  • Fly Me to the Moon
  • Come Rain or Come Shine
  • If I Had You (with Diana Krall)
  • Ain’t Misbehaving
  • I Miss You So
  • Because of You
  • Baby, It’s Cold Outside (with Norah Jones)
  • Angel Eyes
  • On the Street Where You Live
  • Since I Fell For You
  • You Were Always on My Mind 
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