Friday, February 13, 2009

Willie Nelson brings Western swing album

Willie and the Wheel


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American music icon Willie Nelson's latest project is proof that a good idea won't die if the right people care about it.

The story starts in 1974, with Nelson and Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, also known as the man who invented the term "rhythm and blues."

Nelson made two records for Atlantic, with Wexler producing. Wexler then wanted do a record of western swing music with Nelson, but it wasn't to be. Nelson signed with Columbia Records.

Time moved on, but Wexler never forgot about that unmade record, even as he neared death.

The album, "Now Playing! Willie and the Wheel," by Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, is out now. The act comes to the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre on Tuesday night to play those songs and more.

Wexler thought of it as a concept album, said Ray Benson, a longtime friend of Nelson and leader of Asleep at the Wheel.

"The whole demonstration of the album here is not just to have fun and do great music with Willie, but to show this is the progression of western swing," Benson said.

Finally, the right time

The concept album idea lay idle for three decades. In 2003, Wexler -- bedridden with congestive heart failure -- sent a box of western swing albums to Benson, the great preservationist of the genre, which melds big band swing to country music instrumentation.

"I noticed on some of the cuts, there were the initials, 'W.N.,' " Benson said in an interview last week. "[Wexler] said, 'Yeah, I was going to do an album with Willie Nelson, and these were some of the songs I was considering.' "

In 2007, Nelson went on the road with fellow country music icons Merle Haggard and Ray Price. Benson and his band, Asleep at the Wheel, backed the singers.

When the tour was over, Wexler called Nelson's management with a request: " 'Why don't you have Ray and Asleep at the Wheel do that western swing album I've been wanting to do -- 35 years later,' " Benson said.

After hearing from Nelson's camp, Benson pulled out those old records Wexler had sent him, and began searching for the ones marked "W.N."

Benson began production with Wexler. They talked by phone about songs, arrangements and instrumentation.

"I sent about eight sides to Wexler," Benson said. "And he loved it. ... He passed away a month or two later."

It was the final project for Wexler, who gets executive producer credit on "Now Playing!," the new CD by Willie and the Wheel. He was 91.

For Nelson -- who has performed and/or recorded with a range of players including Waylon Jennings, Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Cash and Snoop Dogg -- it's a return to childhood roots. Western swing contains many elements that the adventurous singer/songwriter loves: danceable pop hits of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, with plenty of room to improvise, Benson said.

Bands such as the immortal Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys "do everything," Benson said. "That's the approach that we wanted to play, and that's what Willie talks about. He didn't know it was western swing. They were just playing music to dance to. And it was everything from Hoagie Carmichael ... to Glenn Miller to Louis Armstrong."

The record, released on Feb. 3, is getting good reviews. According to The Washington Post, "Bright, playful and exploding with verve, "Willie and the Wheel" is one of the first great albums of 2009." Billboard magazine wrote: "The set is so authentic that one almost feels guilty listening to it on modern speakers instead of seated around the old Victrola."

But that's not all you'll hear at Tuesday's show. Asleep at the Wheel will open the night, then bring Nelson out to do songs from "Now Playing!" Then they'll move into cuts from records such as Nelson's 1978 record of classic covers, "Stardust," and a more recent project, the Nelson-Marsalis collaboration "Two Men with the Blues," Benson said.

Expect a good, long, funky and energetic show, Benson said.

"I tell you what, I can't keep up with him," Benson, 57, said of Nelson, 75. "He is one of the most energetic human beings I've ever met. He does twice as much as anybody else in show business [who is] near his age."

The day before the Roanoke show, Willie and the Wheel will perform a tune from "Now Playing!" on "Late Show with David Letterman."

"I want to do the 'Hesitation Blues,' so I got to talk to Willie," Benson said. "That's my favorite to perform."

In that case, it should also be great to hear.