Willie and the Wheel
Four people were key to the making of Willie and the Wheel: the late Jerry Wexler had the original idea for Willie Nelson to produce a Western Swing tribute album; the spirit of Bob Wills, who originally performed many of the songs, looms large; Ray Benson produced the album, chose the songs with help from Wexler and created new arrangements for many of them; and finally, Nelson sings and brings his popular appeal to the project. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking or startlingly original, just a collection of classic songs, all easy on the ear and immaculately performed.
Wexler originally thought of Willie Nelson releasing an album of classic Western Swing songs about 30 years ago. He got as far as identifying from his own collection of classic Western Swing records the songs that he thought Nelson might attempt. In later years, Wexler gave those records to Asleep At The Wheel founder Ray Benson, and when the band toured with Nelson in 2007, the project was resurrected. It’s pleasing to note that Wexler got to see the project through before his death in 2008.
Bob Wills – usually dubbed the King Of Western Swing – performed more than half the songs featured here. The main focus of his band the Texan Playboys was twin fiddles and steel guitar in addition to guitar and piano. Benson has happily included trumpet, trombone and clarinet as needed to broaden the musical palette, which gives a definite jazzy feel to some of the songs.
Nelson’s voice is distinctive as ever – his trademark phrasing behind the beat not as evident here as it sometimes is. There are no original songs here, these songs were popular between the 1920s and the 1940s. Nelson takes lead vocals throughout, with occasional help from Benson, and duets with Elizabeth McQueen on “I’m Sitting On Top Of The World”. “Corrine Corrina” has Nelson singing in a much deeper tone that the high, light vocals of the Bob Wills Band version. “South”, a jazz hit in 1927, is basically an instrumental apart from Benson introducing the players, and features guest appearances from Paul Shaffer on piano and Vince Gill on electric guitar.
Willie And the Wheel is not only a good introduction to Western Swing, but also stands alone as an album of feel-good music.