The singer has surrounded himself with some of the genre's top musicians for his new album of pop standards, American Classic.
Willie Nelson's famous face is tanned and weathered. White whiskers increasingly dominate his two-day stubble, and streaks of gray color the waist-length braid trailing down his back. The country music legend is sitting on a bench seat inside a tour bus parked behind the bullpen at Diamond Stadium in Lake Elsinore, waiting to take the stage at this, one stop on a summer tour of minor-league baseball parks with Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp. He displays a youthful vitality that many younger men would envy.
I'm real lucky," this remarkable 76-year-old road warrior says, leaning forward and flashing an easy grin. My health is as good as it's ever been. My lungs are in good shape -- and there are lots of people all over the world wondering how that could be, like Michael Phelps."
Nelson lets out an infectious laugh at the not-so-subtle reference to his celebrated affinity for pot and the Olympic swimming champion's troubles after photos of him inhaling from a marijuana pipe surfaced this year. So I'm in good health and I appreciate it."
When Nelson laughs, there's a gleam in his eye that's ageless; it's there too when he talks about reconnecting with the kind of songs he first heard as a boy growing up in Texas during the 1930s and '40s. It was a time and place where the rural music of the South -- then labeled hillbilly music" -- commingled on radio and in dance halls with the pop and big-band sounds most of the rest of the nation was enjoying, most prominently in the western swing sound pioneered by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
It all fits together," Nelson says. Western swing is just jazz. The musicians Bob had, the musicians Asleep at the Wheel has . . . these are jazz musicians who can play anything; it just so happens they settled in on western swing."
Having recently passed the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, Nelson decided the time was right to return to that fertile trove of songs in American Classic," his new album due out Tuesday. The title describes both the Great American Songbook of pop standards he's drawing upon and the man himself, who is rivaled only by Merle Haggard for the title of country music's greatest living songwriter.
Everybody's doing it
The field of pop-classic vocal albums has gotten crowded in recent years, with singers as wide-ranging as Rod Stewart, Michael Bubl, Cyndi Lauper and Queen Latifah taking swings at songs largely written before they were born. It takes chutzpah, to say nothing of serious vocal chops, to tackle songs famously recorded by Tony Bennett ("Because of You"), Ray Charles ("Come Rain or Come Shine") and Frank Sinatra ("Fly Me to the Moon," as Nelson does on American Classic.
Of course I'm a huge Sinatra fan," Nelson says. There are other guys who've made great versions of that song: Vic Damone, some of those guys. . . . It's probably been recorded 1,000 times, but you always remember Sinatra."
On the album, Nelson is surrounded by a crew of jazz pros, starting with Joe Sample, the esteemed Crusaders keyboardist who wrote the arrangements, and luminaries including guitarist Anthony Wilson, bassists Christian McBride and Robert Hurst, drummers Lewis Nash and Jeff Hamilton and organist Jim Cox.
Sample, also a Texan, has been a fan of Nelson for decades but had never worked with him before, which led to some trepidation about how to approach this project. As the music was taking shape, he recalls phoning album producer Tommy LiPuma and telling him, I have to be careful. I can't take Willie over the line [into straight-ahead jazz]. I know he understands what swing is, but he's not a jazz musician. And I'm not going to lay below that line and try to act like a country musician."
His fears were allayed when he got to Nelson's ranch outside Austin and spotted a collection of the complete recorded works of influential Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt on Nelson's coffee table. When I saw that, I knew exactly what to do. I chilled out," he says. I knew he was going to love whatever I came up with."
Nelson himself is nothing if not laid-back about revisiting songs that have been recorded by many of the greatest singers of the last century. He's been down this road before.
He concedes that he was ribbed for having had the temerity to cover Ray Charles with Georgia on My Mind." That was back in 1978, when Nelson helped put the standards ball in motion with his Stardust" album. It wasn't the first by a performer outside the Sinatra-Bennett adult-pop world to explore that canon, but it quickly became one of the most popular and influential. It's since sold more than 5 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America.
For me, it was a no-brainer," he says. I thought, heck, these are great songs, we've got a great band, a great producer and arranger with Booker [T. Jones]. This has got to be a winner. But it wasn't that easy to sell the record companies on it. Back then we had to battle to get it out there."
Stardust" constituted a major gamble at a time when Nelson was riding the crest of the outlaw country wave with his longtime collaborator Waylon Jennings. A 90-degree left turn into the music of Hoagy Carmichael, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and their peers was the last thing the public expected, despite the versatility and ambition Nelson had shown in themed concept albums that preceded Stardust," including Red Headed Stranger," Phases and Stages" and his salute to Lefty Frizzell, To Lefty From Willie."
But it made total sense to Bruce Lundvall, the Columbia Records executive who signed Nelson to the label in the '70s and now heads Blue Note Records, the jazz label that's releasing American Classic.