Album Review: Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel – Willie and the Wheel
This record has a great story behind it. Jerry Wexler–the Atlantic Records head who coined the term “R&B” and consistently brought legendary talent to Atlantic to make some of the best records of their career–in true form had brought Willie Nelson to Atlantic Records and, among other projects, wanted to cut a Western Swing record with Nelson during his time at the label. Wexler had even gone through his personal collection of Western Swing LP’s to pick out the songs. Things in the record business however don’t always go as planned and, despite cutting the landmark Nelson albums Shotgun Willie, and Phases and Stages, Willie left Atlantic and went on to become an American icon without cutting the Western Swing record that Wexler envisioned him recording.
Despite the decades dragging on, Willie and Wexler both growing older, and Western Swing for the most part fading from public consciousness, Wexler knew a good idea when he had one. And he knew this was a good one. Lucky for him, there is a man who has been keeping the Western Swing torch burning for the better part of 30 years–Asleep at the Wheel founder and leader (the incredibly talented) Ray Benson. When Wexler contacted Benson about the record in 2007, all parties involved agreed that it was time to do it, and Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel cut Willie and The Wheel with Wexler serving as executive producer.
It’s such a great story, the kind that makes writing press materials easy for publicists; a collaboration between three musical giants 30 years in the making! But most projects can’t live up to that kind of hype, and a cynic would expect that Wexler would be too out of touch to oversee anything exceptional, that Willie would be too old and complacent to bring his “A” game, and that The Wheel wouldn’t be able contribute enough to make this anything other than a well put together, but in the end uninteresting, record that was merely adequate at fulfilling it’s promise of Willie Nelson singing Western Swing.
Instead, Willie and The Wheel–a record whose main vocalist is in his 70’s, and whose executive producer was 90–is a record that is so compelling, has such an engrossing sense of identity, and features such inspiring performances in nearly every moment, that it manages to not only be the best Willie record in a decade but one of his best of all time and it stands alongside Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages as an honorary and equally as impressive third in a trio of essential Atlantic recordings. Furthermore, it should once and for all solidify Benson’s reputation as a genius in his form instead of just an earnest practitioner, and it stands toe to toe with the best of Jerry Wexler’s legendary catalog to serve as a fitting goodbye, and impressive parting gift, from one of American Music’s greatest contributors.
Of all the praise I could heap on this record the thing that stands out the most to me about it that this is the kind of record that makes people want to become real musicians in a way that today’s music doesn’t. No one listens to the guitar work on a Martina McBride record–or a Nickelback record for that matter–and feels compelled to pick up a guitar to do that for it’s own sake. But this record, with it’s insanely energetic arrangements and soulful master solos at every turn–not to mention Nelson’s incredibly musical vocal phrasing–is exciting not as trend to be embraced, or as a tool to market diet soda to soccer moms, nor even as a series of smart and introspective examinations of modern life. Wille and The Wheel is exciting as music.
This record doesn’t use louder guitars and more crash symbols in a vain attempt to create energy, it does so it the old fashioned way; by laying down a solid and tight groove, accented smartly with great arrangements which the musicians never lose. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all of the melodies are infectious, or that all of the solos are by players with monster chops who are smart enough to know that it’s not underplaying if it’s got soul.
If this record were released closer to Willie Nelson’s prime as an artist, I firmly believe it would have meant a world of difference to the musical form known as Western Swing. With Wexler’s insistence on horn sections and overall input, Benson’s arrangements and collection of master musicians, and Willie’s distinct character, this record is an instant classic that is not only a good example of, but contributes to, the genre of Western Swing.
Being released today–amidst an endless series of Willie Nelson records, without a movie or some other tie-in to promote it, no hope at radio, and with the music industry in freefall–it’s probably too much to hope for this record to reignite public interest in Western Swing (or riverboat jazz, big band swing, or dancehall blues for that matter) the way that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack re-ignited interest in bluegrass; but surely it won’t fail for lack of excellence.
In my opinion, this record is sure to be one of the best records put out this year in any genre. It’s a music lover’s dream. And it’s not “as good as you’d expect a collaboration between Jerry Wexler, Willie Nelson, and Asleep at the Wheel that was 30 years in the making to be”–it’s better than you’d dare hope for one to be.
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