Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: E1, Front Page, Entertainment Section, continued on E14
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Randy Lewis



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 Buble, 
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."

"When I signed him in the '70s, the first record he came in with was 
'Red Headed Stranger,' " Lundvall said from his home in New York 
while recuperating from recent heart surgery. "I called a meeting and 
told the staff, 'It may not sell, but it's Willie's dream record and 
we're putting it out.' I was way off base. It sold 3 million copies. 
Then he came back with 'Stardust' and I thought, 'My God, how are 
they going to play this at country radio?' I was wrong again."

As for "American Classic," another pet project for Lundvall, "I don't 
have expectations of it doing what 'Stardust' did -- that was 
unprecedented, and it became his bestseller of all time. But I think 
it will do very well for us. . . . The greatest thing for me is just 
being back in business with Willie Nelson."

Nelson says his heart always has belonged as much to jazz as to country.

"Django is my favorite guitar player," he says. "That stuff is the real deal."

Nelson explored the common ground between the genres on his 2008 
album with New Orleans trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, "Two Men With the 
Blues," an effort Marsalis spearheaded as head of the Jazz at Lincoln 
Center program in New York. It allowed Nelson to stretch out as both 
instrumentalist and vocalist, even beyond the signature elastic style 
he's exploited so successfully in country music.

That style is apparent in "American Classic," particularly in Earl K. 
Brent and Matt Dennis' "Angel Eyes," which presents a singer with 
some extraordinary melodic twists and turns.

When it's suggested that it often seems that he can sing anything, 
Nelson laughs again. "That's the problem sometimes," he says. 
"Sometimes you may have to rewrite on the spot -- I think that's 
where jazz got started, because a guy forgot the melody."

A Maverick at Heart

Nelson's anti-establishment persona, along with philanthropic efforts 
including the annual Farm Aid concerts and conservation efforts such 
as his support of bio-diesel fuel and campaign against the slaughter 
of horses have maintained his reputation as a maverick, which helps 
him as time goes on to win the respect of many beyond country music 

"One of the big things that caught my attention was after he moved to 
Nashville in the '60s, he and another Texan, Waylon Jennings, 
eventually told the Nashville people to go to hell, and they left," 
says Sample, who will join Nelson in performances of the "American 
Classic" material in Chicago on Sept. 27 and 28 for a PBS special to 
air in the fall. "I thought, 'Man, these guys are just like me.' . . 
. I guess the Texans in a sense are rebels. We want to do things our 
own way. And Willie's like that: I'm a Texan, I'm going to do what I 
want to do, because that's what God wants me to do."

That attitude also has endeared him to legions of younger listeners.

"My parents always used to go hear him," said 21-year-old Stacy 
Lawrence of Murrieta, between shrieks of approval for Nelson's 
version of the country standard "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" at the 
Lake Elsinore show. "Now it's my turn."

It's easy to wonder how he handles the pace he maintains, though 
regular outings to the nearest golf course are one stress reliever 
for him. He's making the most of his good health, touring 
relentlessly and putting out albums at the rate some people pay 
quarterly tax estimates.

"American Classic" is his fourth in 2009 alone, following a dip into 
the pool of western swing in "Willie and the Wheel" with fellow 
Texans Asleep at the Wheel, a stripped-down reissue of some of his 
1960s Nash-ville recordings titled "Naked Willie" and a new 
compilation called "Lost Highway" of highlights culled from several 
albums he made this decade for the boutique label of the same name.

Once in a while there's a subtle sign that, as he sang to great comic 
effect on one of those Lost Highway albums, "I Ain't Superman."

"Fortunately and unfortunately, I'm out here a lot. It's good, 
because I like to play," he says, then coughs. "But at some point 
you're ready to go sit down and rest a while." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake