12 September 2009

American Classic by Willie Nelson

The one time I saw Willie Nelson in concert — this was in an outdoor rodeo arena at Cheyenne Frontier Days — he took a few songs to warm up, to settle in, to really sell his material. Then he rocked.

Maybe that's just the way Willie rolls: His newest record, American Classic follows a similar trajectory, though its end result is more shuffle than rock. The album takes a few songs, maybe even one complete listen, before it feels warm, settled and authentic, before it feels less like an impostor and more like a genial stepbrother to the rest of Willie's admittedly idiosyncratic discography.

This isn't Willie Nelson's first collection of standards. That distinction belongs to 1978's Stardust, which critics said sounded Willie's death-knoll but which actually won him a Grammy and became his best-selling (and maybe his best-liked) album to date. Three decades ago, Stardust was audacious. Today, an album of innocuous pop hits is a common a move for a veteran musician. An entire standards genre, sometimes miscategorized "easy listening", is in full-swing, dominated by Rod Stewart's indiscriminate Great American Songbook, Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits of the [insert decade here], and Bette Midler's Bette Sings the [insert crooner here] Songbook series. Even Dolly Parton, whose genre roots aren't far from Willie's, often polishes up rusty oldies from unlikely sources like Cole Porter, Smokey Robinson and Bread.

Now, I can't make a case for anyone more qualified than Willie Nelson to compile a list of tunes that merit the title "American Classic". The man has been on the music scene in one role or another for nearly fifty years, and — lest we forget it — he himself penned songs like "Crazy" and "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" that remain so beloved decades later that they don't require inclusion on an album like this to remind us they're classics. If I have one complaint about the songs on American Classic, it's that they're not as classic as many of Willie's originals.

At the outset of this review, I said the album takes some time to warm up. Let me be more specific: The disc takes exactly four minutes and forty-five seconds, the entire running length of its first track, "The Nearness of You", to warm up. Made famous by Glen Miller in the 1930s, the song is familiar to Twenty-First Century listeners because of Norah Jones (who, coincidentally, also makes a guest appearance on this album). It opens with a soft bath of piano and orchestra, neither of which is an obvious accompaniment to Willie's trademark wispy/raspy vocals, and it establishes the comfortable tempo that marks the whole album, but otherwise it's an unremarkable cover.

Like most of the tunes in this new collection, "Nearness" has already been covered who-knows-how-many-times by who-knows-how-many musicians, and that must put the artist in a quandary: What do you do with material that's been stretched in so many directions there's no place else for it to go?

Most artists would probably opt to just leave it alone. Willie, however, opts to call the material home again, back to its Tin Pan Alley roots, and that more or less summarizes his approach on American Classic. His intent doesn't seem to be to rework or reinvent so much as to mark these particular songs with his own stamp of approval, namely his voice, and it's not unfair to state that the primary difference between the originals and these covers is Willie's delivery. In "Nearness", and in the album's other lesser tracks, his performance is reverent and accurate, about what you'd expect from the anonymous entertainer at any black-tie event. But Willie is not an anonymous lounge singer. I hold him to a higher standard.

Or maybe I just expect him to have more fun, which is exactly what he does on this disc's standout tracks, which may be as good as anything on Stardust. Consider, for example, the album's strangest "classic", "On the Street Where You Live", written in 1956 by Broadway legends Lerner & Loewe for the minor character Freddy Eysnford-Hill in My Fair Lady. This one has also been covered by a smattering of other musicians, from Vic Damone to Marvin Gaye, but Willie's version is a bit bouncier and consequently a whole lot sexier than any of these.

He brings a similar growling sex-appeal to "Baby, It's Cold Outside". [For the record, if I ran the world, this song would be banned from new albums until its ubiquity had gone away. Seriously, has anyone not recorded it?] Norah Jones plays the part of the damsel who doesn't really want to go home but nevertheless worries what the neighbors (and her maiden aunt) may think if she stays the night. Jones, herself no stranger to sultry vocals, is about forty-five years younger than Willie, and that gap in age lends the tune an appreciable creepy edge — particularly if while listening you can't help but imagine the two on a couch together. Still, the combination works, and "Baby" will probably catch some radio-play this Christmas.

Other highlights include Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon", which appears to be the album's first single, as well as "Come Rain or Come Shine", which like "On the Street Where You Live" was written for Broadway (in this case by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer for 1946's St. Louis Woman). I especially enjoy Willie's bluesy take on the "Come Rain" chorus: "The days may be cloudy or sunny / We're in or we're out of the money / But I'm with you always / I'm with you rain or shine". When he digs down into it, Willie sure can sell a love song, even one that's been a few times around the block.

But we already knew that. We knew it in 1978 with Stardust. And we knew it again in 1982, when Willie hit the top of the country charts, and won another Grammy for, his rendition of the Elvis smash, "Always On My Mind". American Classic fades out with a new and lusher recording of this same tune, a move that is at once both nostalgic and political. Nostalgic because it reminds us that covers have always been at the center of Willie's oeuvre. Political because it argues that Willie Nelson, a consummate musician, has had a hand in making standard many of the standards that appear on albums like this one.

Would I have preferred a new record of Willie originals? Yes.

Is American Classic a good album anyway? Absolutely.