Willie and the Wheel
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
This winning genre album has a sweet bit of back story behind it. Legendary record producer Jerry Wexler, who recorded Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, planned an album of classic Western swing for Willie Nelson while he was still signed to Atlantic Records. Then Mr. Nelson decamped for CBS Records, and the effort was shelved. The project came to the attention of guitarist and bandleader Ray Benson in 2003 when Mr. Wexler gave him a stack of old Western swing LPs, with about 40 songs picked out for the album tagged with Mr. Nelson’s initials.
The project was revived in 2007, but Mr. Wexler died before the album was completed.
Fans of the Western swing repertoire will be thrilled by “Willie and the Wheel.” Mr. Nelson’s honeyed tenor is ideally suited to the easygoing midtempo tunes. Listeners unfamiliar with the genre might find the music a little hokey. The form is a true American patois, blending jazz swing, polka, Dixieland from New Orleans and sounds from the Mexican border orchestras popular in the Southwest. A lush mix of fiddle and pedal steel guitar sets it apart from its near relations - yielding a smooth, sweet dance-hall music that was wildly popular in the 1930s and 1940s but has since fallen into relative obscurity.
To their credit, Mr. Benson and his band Asleep at the Wheel have done little to bring Western swing up to date, but their musicianship and passion for the material still make for a fresh, vivid sound. “Bring It on Down to My House” opens with a rollicking Dixieland trombone punctuating an easygoing clarinet part that segues into guitar and fiddle solos. Even the title of “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None O’ This Jelly Roll” has an old-fashioned feel - backed up by a ragtime piano part that sounds as if it could have appeared on a piano roll in a honky-tonk.
Elsewhere, “Sitting on Top of the World” will be familiar to blues fans because of the definitive Howlin’ Wolf version. The traditional lament has a more joyful sound in its Western swing incarnation, sweetened by the mix of clarinet, piano and guitar.
In particular, Mr. Benson’s guitar parts are relics from a bygone age, played out on a big-body guitar with a warm, woody resonance - the crisply plucked guitar notes contrast with the drawling brass and organlike pedal steel guitar.
Asleep at the Wheel’s take on Western swing should be especially interesting to fans of early 20th-century American popular music. Their fidelity to the source material means that traces of jazz swing, ragtime and Dixieland are preserved as if in amber, sounding much as they did in the ‘30s and ‘40s.