Always An American Classic
Lillian Civantos | Thursday, September 3, 2009
There is no doubt that Willie Nelson is an American classic. His career spans several decades and includes many awards and honors. He is as well known for his pop-culture persona – the free-spirited hippie-cowboy – as for his musical talent. His songs, including “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind,” are country anthems. In his newest album, “American Classic,” Willie Nelson delivers, giving 12 beloved favorites a new twist in his familiar style. Not just for country lovers, “American Classic” resonates with any fan of musical Americana.
Nelson’s musical breakthrough came over 30 years ago, with the 1978 release of “Stardust.” Defying the stereotypes of the time for a popular artist, particularly in country, Nelson collected favorite songs of his childhood into the first-ever “Great American Songbook.” The result was a runaway success, and such collections have now become standard for any popular artist. Few young people realize that Willie Nelson started this now common tradition. Today, critics are saying that “American Classic” is the long-awaited sequel to “Stardust,” as Willie once again pays tribute to the great musical tradition that came before him.
While “Stardust” was more distinctively country, “American Classic” hearkens to Nelson’s youth, evoking the music he grew up with in the 1930s and 1940s more than the “outlaw country” movement that became his trademark. Like any Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby album, “American Classic” fits perfectly for an elegant dinner party or a slow-moving dance number.
The album begins with “The Nearness of You,” which was written in 1938 and first became popular as sung by Ray Eberle. It has since been re-recorded by many artists, including Keith Richards, Norah Jones and Diana Krall. Both Jones and Krall appear in “American Classic,” each collaborating with Nelson for one song. Although Nelson is best known for Country Western, you can’t really tell in this album. Where a strong country twang would ruin these sweet old-fashioned ballads, Nelson tastefully plays down his roots. This is clear from the very first song, where mellow piano complements Nelson’s gentle vocals with a beautiful result.
First recorded in 1954, “Fly Me to the Moon” has been recorded many times as well – most famously by Frank Sinatra – but never quite as Nelson plays it. His melodious voice conveys a yearning tenderness with every syllable. This song will leave you floating amongst the stars with Willie. “Come Rain or Come Shine” is borrowed from the 1946 musical “St. Louis Woman,” and has been covered by greats like Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Ray Charles and Barbra Streisand. In this song and in “On the Street Where You Live,” Nelson conveys a country aura more strongly than in most of the album.
In “If I Had You,” one of the album’s strongest numbers, Nelson more than lives up to his predecessors, teaming up with Diana Krall in a gently piano-driven number that whispers of old-time romance. In 2001, the song “Ain’t Misbehavin'” was selected one of 365 “Songs of the Century” by RIAA. It gains a new magic in Nelson’s hands, and allows him to play up his soft side more than most modern country singers.
Don’t miss Nelson’s mischievous duet with Norah Jones on Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Her fresh, youthful voice blends beautifully with his mellow entreaties.
Nelson closes the album appropriately with “Always On My Mind.” Although more than 300 artists have recorded this song, Nelson’s 1982 rendition is definitely the best known. It won “Song of the Year,” “Best Country Song,” and “Best Male Country Vocal Performance” at the 25th Grammy awards in 1983. The song has lost none of its magic through the years. Neither has Willie Nelson. As this album proves, he is and always will be an American classic.