Album Review: Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel – Willie and the Wheel

Ben Cisneros | February 9th, 2009

Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel - Willie and the WheelThis 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.

5 Stars

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  1. [...] years in the making to be”–it’s better than you’d dare hope for one to be..” — Ben Cisneros “Nelson sounds like an absolute natural in these environs, which is no surprise given the [...]
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  1. Juli
    February 9, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Great review, Ben. This record’s gonna be a tough one to beat for Album of the Year.

  2. Razor X
    February 9, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    “When Wexler contacted Benson about the record in 1997, 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.”

    Just for clarification, was this album recorded over ten years ago and just now being released, or is “1997” a typo? Or did it just take ten years to get everyone together in the studio?

    Very nice write-up, Ben. I’m definitely going to get this one.

  3. Drew
    February 9, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Just listened through this yesterday and wasn’t a fan at all. The only redeeming songs on here were a few covers of Bob Wills.

  4. Matt B.
    February 9, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    Razor,

    it should be 2007. I looked in the liner notes.

  5. Razor X
    February 9, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks, Matt.

  6. CMW
    February 9, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Great review, Ben. I haven’t gotten around to picking this one up yet, but it just moved to the top of my list.

  7. Matt B.
    February 9, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Y’know, you add this to Willie’s “Two Men With The Blues” album and you’ve got yourself two of the best albums Willie’s done from his whole career.

  8. Dan Milliken
    February 9, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    Wow, this makes me so pissed I haven’t listened through it yet. Well done.

  9. Leeann Ward
    February 9, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    It’s my job to review this at CU, but I don’t know that I’m equal to the task. What a wonderful album. I was looking forward to it, but I worried it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. It surpassed them for the reasons Ben notes. Awesome review for a very deserving record.

  10. Baron Lane
    February 9, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    Ben, great review. I’ve been enjoying it for a few days now and agree wholeheartedly. The spirited of Bob Wills is in good hands.

  11. mikeky
    February 9, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    another great work from willie nelson. every track is a stunner. if there’s another cd that comes close to ‘album of the year’, i haven’t seen it yet. this one is a winner.

    word is that willie’s next solo release is on blue note records (a jazz label). it’s standards done with a jazz band, from what i hear.

  12. Matt B.
    February 9, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    Mikeky,

    If that’s the case for Willie then I’m all for it. He’s a natural for swing and Jazz music.

  13. Rick
    February 9, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Sounds like my kind of album. So when do we get a giveaway contest with multiple copies available for deserving 9513 participants (and maybe me too)? And please, no “what is ‘It’ that get you up in the morning” questions! Yikes! (lol)

    Merle Haggard’s tribute to Bob Wills album from the 1970’s could have been a great album had Hag not insisted on playing the fiddle himself, which turned it into a bit of a vanity project. Oh well…….

  14. mikeky
    February 9, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    absolutely, matt b. willie is a natural for jazz music. he phrases like a jazz singer with a touch of sinatra for good measure. in front of the beat, behind it a bit, catching up on the back end, jumping the lyric entirely. his phrasing is impeccable. jazz is in his blood.

  15. Brady Vercher
    February 9, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    Great review, Ben. It’s going to be pretty hard for anything to top this album this year.

    One of the first bands that Willie was a part of was led by Bud Fletcher (who later married Bobbie Nelson) and modeled after Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, so he’s been at it awhile.

    If anyone takes the time to actually look at what Ray Benson’s been doing, it ought to be clear that he’s a genius at what he’s doing rather than a practitioner. He deserves the props.

    I think Willie is typically known for singing behind the beat and catching up at the last second. Elizabeth McQueen and/or David Sanger have a blog and one of them talked about recording with Willie and how his singing style works beautifully for jazz, which is pretty influential to Western Swing.

  16. Hollerin' Ben
    February 9, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Hopefully this record inspires people to take another look at Benson’s career with the Wheel. It’s certainly inspired me to do so.

    thanks for all the kind words on the review everyone. I’m glad to see that I wasn’t an outlier in thinking highly of this record, it would be discouraging considering that this is the first time I’ve ever given an album 5 stars (which I figured I would never do).

  17. Kelly
    February 9, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Great review Ben. Admittedly, I havent been big on Western Swing at any point in my life, but I love a record that has a real back-story and indeed, this one has a story of survival, which is most definitely a rarity in this day and age of disposable music for 99 cents.

  18. Paul W Dennis
    February 9, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    I haven’t heard this one yet, although I will purchase it as soon as I see it for sale. I haver no doubt that it will be very good indeed.

    I liked Ben’s review as he expresses himself very well. That said he made made the following statement with which I disagree:

    “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.”

    I don’t believe this to be the case. Hag was at the top of his game (and was about as big as Willie later became) when he released his Bob Wills tribute, and early George Strait albums contained a lot of swing. Because Western Swing is more jazz than country, I think its commercial potential is limited. Jazz was America’s pop music from about 1936-1945 but never again after that. Western Swing, with its emphasis on instrumental riffs rather than vocals also faded after WW2 – even post war western swing stars like Hank Thompson drifted more toward honky-tonk as the years passed.

    Moreover, Willie’s multudinous duet albums never really kick-started any fading legend’s career (Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Roger Miller, Johnnny Bush, etc). Willie’s fans bought his albums but the fan base remained fans of Willie rather than gravitating to other galaxies

    I love western swing. It and Honky Tonk (Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Hank Williams) are my absolute favorite forms of country music. I just don’t think western swing will ever again ascend to the top of the ladder and with all the bluegrass influence current in vogue, I despair of the death of honky-tonk. Ironically 30 years ago, any trace of bluegrass had completely faded off the country airwaves, not to be heard again until the emergence of Ricky Skaggs.

  19. Hollerin' Ben
    February 9, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Paul,

    obviously that’s speculation on my part, and I don’t think that Western Swing would have regained the prominence that it had when Bob Wills was king, but I do think that this record would have inspired young musicians that were a part of Willie’s fanbase to experiment with the form and would have ensured that Asleep at the Wheel weren’t so alone as a popular group playing Western Swing music.

  20. Paul W Dennis
    February 9, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    Western Swing is still out there and it shows up in odd places, such as the track “World’s Greatest Fool” on Rhonda Vincent’s last album .

    Western Swing is a musical form that tends to appeal to musicians rather than the general public, what with its extended instrumental breaks and improvisational jamming.

    Even today the Time Jumpers draw respectable crowds and there are other groups out there such as John England and his Western Swingers – they just don’t sell a lot of records. If you want a really good swing band, the Australian Feral Katz Swing Band was really good

  21. Rick
    February 9, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    Hey Ben, come on down to the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena at 10 PM tonight if you want to catch some live top level western swing. The Hot Club of Cowtown has added a second show at the last minute, so you could likely get in! This is one of the best live performance western swing based groups on the planet.
    Link: http://www.coffeegallery.com/showsat.htm

  22. johnny
    February 10, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    This album will be the best one of the year…hands down. Thanks for the killer review Ben.

    Cheers!

  23. Patrick
    February 12, 2009 at 7:21 pm

    A great review of a 100% delightful album…. one that I’ll play until forever!

    How sad that Ray had to form his own label to release it on!

  24. Steve Harvey
    August 12, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    Still the best album of 2009!

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