OUTLAW COUNTRY STAR WILLIE NELSON 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 explores on this elegant new set. While it’s common now for mature pop artists 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 withStardust, 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. Jones-produced Stardust—which showcased material from the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Kurt Weill, among others, in spare, easy-going arrangements—became the most successful album of his career thus far. It reached #1 on the 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, middle-aged 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 ‘70s 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 (Nelson’s highest charting since Always On My Mind hit #2 in 1982).
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, the more writers you hear, the better equipped you are to decide where you want to go next. That’s why I want to listen to everyone and everything and then decide which way 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 feel more like pillow talk than mere wishful thinking. He also duets with Norah Jones, countering playful protestations with romantic persuasion on Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” 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 Eyes” and “Since I Fell For You.”
Remarks LiPuma, “Willie is just the best to work with. He’s 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 cohorts 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 the 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 a lot 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.
Enjoy Willie Nelson’s unique sound for two soulful and spontaneous concerts, March 16 and 17 at 8pm. Tickets are available for $65 with premium seating available for $80. To reserve seats visit www.silverlegacy.com or www.ticketmasters.com or call 1-800-MUST-SEE (687-8733) or 775-325-7401. You can find more information and the latest updates on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Silver legacy iPhone and Android Apps.
Silver Legacy Resort Casino
P.O. Box 3920 Reno, NV 89505