Willie Nelson – American Classic (2009)

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Willie Hugh Nelson (born April 29, 1933) is an American musician, actor, and activist. The critical success of the album Shotgun Willie (1973), combined with the critical and commercial success of Red Headed Stranger (1975) and Stardust (1978), made Nelson one of the most recognized artists in country music. He was one of the main figures of outlaw country, a subgenre of country music that developed in the late 1960s as a reaction to the conservative restrictions of the Nashville sound. Nelson has acted in over 30 films, co-authored several books, and has been involved in activism for the use of biofuels and the legalization of marijuana.

American Classic is the fifty-seventh studio album by American country music artist Willie Nelson, released on August 25, 2009. It focuses on the American popular songbook and standard jazz classics, and includes guest appearances by Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

In 2008, Nelson met at his ranch in Austin, Texas with his producer Tommy Lipuma, and jazzmen Joe Sample to select the songs for the album. The twelve songs selected were a collection of classics, that included a re-recording by Nelson of Always on My Mind. A duet with Barbra Streisand was planned for the recording of the album, that ultimately was not performed. The photo in the cover of the album was taken in Nelson’s ranch by photographer Danny Clinch.

Rolling Stone rated the album with three stars out of five, receiving a mixed review: “Nelson can be kind of lazy […] he only occasionally sounds like he’s trying. […] But his band pushes the music into airless cocktail-jazz territory, and Nelson often sounds glib and unengaged.”

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The New York Times praised Nelson’s band but criticized his performance of the songs: “(American Classic) follows the lineage of “Stardust” in one sense, with a menu of songbook fare. But in another sense it feels like a capitulation.Its sound is lustrous, its personnel impeccable. What’s missing is the sense of conviction that Mr. Nelson brings to his strongest work. […] What redeems much of “American Classic” is the singularity of Mr. Nelson’s voice, along with the deceptive shrewdness of his singing”.

The Austin Chronicle rated the album with two stars out of five. The publication criticized the arrangements: “American Classic is tender and light, and Nelson inhabits the songs easily […] Unable to recapture the shock of reinvention that was Stardust, producer Tommy LiPuma rests Nelson’s slowly distilled vocals atop a band of jazz ringers that squares the Texan with the tradition rather than upsetting it, and only Joe Sample’s piano steps up to push the songs beyond their ready-made standard status”.

Prefix magazine rated the album with eight points out of ten. The magazine gave a positive review to the album: “Country star (Willie Nelson) seems quite comfortable flying to the moon and singing among those stars. Nelson’s weathered voice is complemented by refined instrumentals from a collective of seasoned jazzmen […] At the age of 76, the Texas native proves that there is still plenty of stardust left under his cowboy hat”.

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Pop Matters rated the album with four points out of five, the bad review focused in Nelson’s phrasing and the arrangements: “Nelson’s signature phrasing has become a vehicle for his laziness, as his words sound hollow and forced […] certain performances sound like a man going through the motions. […] Nelson’s lackluster vocals put the listener to sleep. He murmurs the verses, and seemingly wakes up for a few seconds to sing the louder chorus. Then he goes back to his nodding-out rumblings. While LiPuma and Nelson bonded over Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Django Reinhardt, and tried to incorporate those sounds into the arrangements, the sweeping, cinematic string sections do not resemble the Playboys’ fiddle or Reinhardt’s distinct gypsy sound”.

The album was nominated at the 52nd Grammy Awards for Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. (wikipedia)

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When Willie Nelson took the unexpected step of releasing Stardust in 1978, many predicted that the album of popular standards would severely derail the outlaw country singer’s career. Confounding the critics, the disc became Nelson’s best-selling effort, and spawned a whole subgenre of modern singers covering the classics. Nelson revisited the format with 1994’s orchestral Healing Hands of Time and to varying degrees on several other records, but it wasn’t until 2009’s American Classic that the red-headed stranger delivered an album billed as the true follow-up to Stardust. Released on the venerable Blue Note label, the disc features guest appearances by superstar jazz singers Norah Jones and Diana Krall, but the focus is always placed squarely on Nelson’s famously idiosyncratic vocals. American Classic does not feature Nelson’s veteran band, but rather a core group of first-call studio jazz cats including Christian McBride on bass, Joe Sample on piano, and Lewis Nash on drums. The resultant sound is smooth, classy, and subtle — a sonic horse of a different color from the exquisitely ramshackle earthiness that made Stardust so appealing and unusual. On tunes such as the jaunty, gently swinging “On the Street Where You Live” and “Since I Fell for You,” which features longtime Nelson cohort Mickey Raphael on bluesy harmonica, Nelson sounds comfortable and in command, gliding effortlessly and soulfully over a great set of tunes played by top-notch pros. (by Pemberton Roach)

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Personnel:
Jeff Clayton (saxophone)
Jim Cox (organ)
Jeff Hamilton (drums)
Robert Hurst (bass)
Christian McBride (bass)
Lewis Nash (drums)
Mickey Raphael (harmonica)
Joe Sample (piano)
Willie Nelson (guitar, vocals)
Anthony Wilson (guitar)
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Norah Jones (piano, vocals (on 08.)
Diana Krall (piano, vocals on 04.)

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Tracklist:
01. The Nearness Of You Hoagy (Carmichael/Washington) 4,42
02. Fly Me To The Moon (Howard) 2.50
03. Come Rain Or Come Shine (Arlen/Mercer) 3.56
04. If I Had You (featuring Diana Krall) (Campbell/Connelly/Shapiro) 4.21
05. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Waller/Brooks/Razaf) 2.55
06. I Miss You So (Henderson/Scott/Robin) 4.31
07. Because Of You (Hammerstein/Wilkinson) 322
08. Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Loesser) 3.58
09. Angel Eyes (Dennis/Brent) 4.33
10. On The Street Where You Live (Lerner/Loewe) 2.55
11. Since I Fell For You (Johnson) 3.39
12. Always On My Mind (Christopher/James/Thompson) 3.28

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