Country legend Willie Nelson sings the blues

ON POPULAR MUSIC

July 10, 2008|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

Although I purport to live by the words of the old blues song "ain't nobody's business if I do," I guess a small part of me still cares about what my friends think - especially my progressive, ultra-hip urban ones.

So for a while now, I've kept my Willie Nelson jones a secret from them. I don't know why. He's one of the most soulful, movingly transcendent singer-songwriters of American music, a true pop "gangsta." But I kept his albums on my "guilty pleasures" shelf alongside CDs by Christopher Cross, Barry Manilow, Journey and Air Supply. (Uh, yeah, my musical tastes are wildly eclectic, to say the least.)

Of course, Nelson didn't belong on that dusty bottom shelf. What an insult. I just recently realized that as I revisited such classic albums as Shotgun Willie (1973), Phases and Stages (1974) and the gorgeous Stardust (1978). Those CDs now have a new home. They sit next to evergreen sets by Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Al Green - much better company than before. Besides, Willie Nelson has much more in common with those soul legends: In his music also lies the bittersweet earthiness of the blues.

In April, to commemorate his 75th birthday, Sony-BMG released a four-disc box set, One Hell of a Ride, the first extensive collection to cover Nelson's towering 54-year recording career. And about two weeks ago, in recognition of the 30th anniversary of its release, the label reissued an expanded, two-disc edition of Stardust, one of the most sincere and sparsely beautiful standards albums ever recorded.

But the country-pop maverick is still putting out vital music. Two Men With the Blues, in stores this week, is a live set recorded with stately jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. On paper, the combination seems somewhat incongruous. Nelson's approach to anything is so laid-back and conversational. His voice calmly rustles, his guitar solos grip and glint. Music seemingly flows from the man with little effort. Marsalis, on the other hand, always seems buttoned-up. Every note is so earnestly executed, every improvisation a big statement.

On the duet album, which was recorded live at New York City's The Allen Room over two nights in January 2007, the pair meet on common ground: the blues. The feel and nuances of the style anchor just about everything they've done over the years. Throughout the 10-cut set, covering such blues and pop standards as "Georgia on My Mind" and Nelson's own "Night Life," the mutual respect is palpable. Marsalis even loosens up a bit, singing through his horn and sounding joyful. The quintet behind the two plays with a lot of spunk and fire. Sometimes, though, the arrangements are a little too bombastic, particularly on the opener, "Bright Lights Big City."

But through it all, Nelson is an easy country breeze, unfazed by tempo. On the surface, he sounds unhurried and unaffected but, still, he cuts through. No matter the song or musical arrangement, it all becomes Willie Nelson music.

It's tempting to call the native Texan a music chameleon, because his style over the years has braided different strands: the blues, jazz, soul, folk, pop, country. Although the music changes colors around him, Nelson stays the same. He's always upfront and intimate, regardless of the tune and tempo. It's something he probably learned from Frank Sinatra, one of Nelson's musical heroes. But unlike Ol' Blue Eyes, the outlaw country legend communicates a fragility, a certain tenderness that melts the heart. Time is magically suspended when he croons "Stardust," the title cut on the 1978 standards album, which Nelson reprises on the duet CD with Marsalis.

When he sings, his love and respect for the lyrics buoy the music. He takes his time as the story unfolds. But Nelson's style is deceptively simple. It's not easy being that casual with time and rhythm. But beyond his vocal brilliance and his gift for writing vivid, sometimes haunting lyrics, I just love the fact that at 75 the man still sports long hippie braids and cowboy boots.

Despite well-publicized hardships - a staggering tax debt to the IRS in the 1990s, an arrest for cannabis possession in 2006 (interesting, given that Nelson's love for "strong herb" has been an open secret for years) - the man is still standing. More important, he's still making good music, stubbornly unchanged by the times. And those of us who admire Willie Nelson openly - or secretly - wouldn't have it any other way.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

ONLINE

Hear clips from Two Men With the Blues at baltimoresun.com/listeningpost

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