Collaborations Part I: Willie and the Wheel

Tomorrow night I'll see Willie Nelson with the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. I have a second row seat, and I couldn't be more excited. When I was a kid I remember listening to Red Headed Stranger on vinyl, but I don't remember being particularly impressed. In high school, one of my best friends regularly played "Whiskey River," turned up really loud. I remember thinking that his voice had some character, but I wasn't wild about it. Later, when I was in college, a co-worker lent me a Willie Nelson greatest hits album. If Willie's voice is an acquired taste, that's when I suddenly acquired a liking for it. Collaborations have always excited me because I get the sense that there is something more authentic about it. It's like a pick-up game between a couple of usually polished performers. One of the exciting things about awards shows, for instance, is the collaborations--Neil Young and Pearl Jam, Elton John and Eminem, etc. Willie has sustained an entire career as a collaborator.

(is it me of does Kris Kristofferson look like Tom Daschle?)

In the early 60's he wrote a string of country hits for other performers including "Crazy" and "Hello Walls." In the 70's he collaborated with Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson in the country super-group The Highwaymen. Some of his collaborations did not seem very inspired, like his 1984 duet with Julio Iglesias, "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" (though it made the Billboard Top 100 that year).

His work in the jazz idiom has likewise seemed a little forced to me. That is, when he sings with a jazz band such as last years recording with Wynton Marsalis, Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center. In my mind, his versions of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," and "Georgia on My Mind," are standards, but with the jazz ensemble, his intimate, soulful voice is forced to compete with a powerful, almost violent, din.

I think he found his best fit near jazz with the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel. This is the depression-era music he says he grew up with. The Western swing style is to Willie what gospel was to Ray Charles. After working at the pinnacle of jazz, he is returning to his jazz-influenced roots. The dixieland and swing are unmistakable in the music of Asleep at the Wheel. I really didn't know much about them until this show came up, and after listening to some of their stuff I'm even more excited.

©2017 Joshua Harris