A studio collaboration between Texas legend Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel was delayed some 30 years, but the wait was certainly worth it, and the happy music couldn't have come at a better time. According to press releases, legendary record producer Jerry Wexler (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan are among his clients) was a fan of Western Swing, having been exposed to the music while studying journalism in Kansas City. He reportedly wanted to work on an album with Nelson when they were both at Atlantic Records, but Nelson left before they got to the project.
In 2007, after Nelson and the Wheel completed the “Last of the Breed Tour” with Merle Haggard and Ray Price, they decided it was time to get together in the studio.
Wexler helped with song selections for the CD. According to the official website, www.willieandthewheel.com, Wexler and Ray Benson, the Wheels’ founder, took a catalogue of nearly 40 selections and “painstakingly narrowed the list down to 12.”
Always a producer with a vision, Wexler was involved in every step of the production. He insisted that some of the tracks include horns, as well traditional fiddles and lap steel guitar associated with Western Swing.
“As the sessions concluded and Willie finished his vocals, the tracks were sent to Jerry” Benson said. “To my delight and relief, he loved them.”
Wexler died in August of last year, before the CD was released.
“It was a sad day indeed when the news came in that Jerry had passed away,” said Benson. “We’re so proud to have had this opportunity to make this record with him.”
The 12 songs that made the CD are full of good times, happy music and a solid dose of Dixieland jazz. It’s the perfect antidote for these trying times.
In “Hesitation Blues,” The whole band gets to jam and strut their stuff, including a great clarinet solo and some impressive work by steel guitar player Eddie Rivers. I dare you not to tap your toes, despite your 401(k) balance.
The past couple of times I’ve seen The Wheel in concert, they’ve played “Sweet Jennie Lee,” a fast-paced ditty with some fancy piano licks and nice harmony. I now realize they were getting familiar with the piece so they could include it on the new CD.
“Fan It” was a complete surprise. Willie and the Wheel put a Dixieland spin on one of Bob Wills’ favorite tunes, and it’s a serving of airwave happiness.
Willie does a little tongue-in-cheek with “Jelly Roll.” Floyd Domino just wails on the piano. The tune is the perfect definition of what honky tonk music should be.
Jason Roberts, The Wheel’s fiddle player, gets to show off a little on “Oh! You Pretty Woman,” (Wills’ tune, not Roy Orbinson’s).
Western Swing disc jockey and musician Dave Alexander, who sometimes sits in with the Wheel in their play, “A Ride with Bob,” lends his considerable talent to “Bring It On Down to My House, Baby,” giving the cut a Dixieland feel with some smooth slide trombone. This song is the perfect blend of Texas’ honky tonks and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall.
The classic country song, “Right or Wrong,” gets The Wheel’s special treatment and should be included on the set list for every show. When listening to this one, close your eyes and think about the Rio Palm Isle in Longview or Gruene Hall in San Marcos. This is the perfect music for two-stepping. Ah, ha!
The band does a fine job on “South,” an instrumental tune that includes appearances by David Letterman’s band leader Paul Schaffer and country star Vince Gill. I’m not much of a Schaffer fan, but Gill’s guitar work here is smooth as silk.
I learned something listening to “Corrine, Corrina.” I always thought the song was called “Corrina, Corrina.” Not that it matters, but it just goes to show you don’t know everything you think you do. Rivers has a great turn on this cut, while Roberts and Elizabeth McQueen, the band’s girl singer, get in some tight harmonizing, too.
McQueen has her moment in the spotlight on the Bob Wills tune, “Sitting on Top of the World.” She and Nelson give it their all in one of the best country duets in recent memory. It’s not easy to sing with Nelson, as you never know how he’s going to approach the lyric, but McQueen was up for the job.
It might have taken three decades to get together, but when they did, Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel created some the happiest music I’ve heard in a long time, making it well worth the wait.
So, if you’re feeling a little blue about the bailouts, and need a pick-me-up for under $20, this CD is guaranteed to lift the clouds.
Editor’s note: McQueen and her husband, The Wheel’s drummer, David Sanger, have hit the road, along with the six-week old infant. McQueen’s blog about their experiences is just as smart and funny as the girl herself. Check it out on www.milesandmilesofdiapers.blogspot.com
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