Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel Willie and the Wheel Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Willie Nelson, Ray Benson and a whole lot of Western Swing.

Nick Barraclough 2010

Given the amount of collaborations that Willie Nelson and Ray Benson get involved in, their shared home of Texas and their love of that state’s Western Swing music, it is extraordinary that this album didn’t arrive sooner.

It was the brainchild of R&B producer and closet Western Swing fan, Jerry Wexler. But the project was revived when Ray Benson, leading light of Asleep at the Wheel, noticed the initials WN by certain tracks of Western Swing albums Wexler had given him when he was off-loading some vinyl after he retired.

“What’s this WN about?” asks Ray, and Jerry tells him it was a project he’d always wanted to do but never got round to: Willie Nelson singing the music he grew up with. Wexler died in 2008, but Ray took up the torch, ultimately piecing together this end product.

The result of the efforts of Nelson and Benson could be expected to sound just like the wonderful Ride With Bob sessions Ray worked on in 2005, honouring Bob Wills, on which a number of country music stars sang Western Swing standards with Asleep at the Wheel. But Wexler’s influence has made itself felt with the inclusion of more horns than The Wheel would usually go for. The one gripe here is that a couple of times these horns tumble over each other, and things get dangerously close to Dixieland

The fiddles and steel are still there though, as is the idiosyncratic use of bar lines and section playing as dictated by that king of Western Swing, Bob Wills, back in the 1940s.

Willie’s vocal is, for once, almost on the beat. When a group swings like this he has little alternative. And do they swing. The performances are terrific, and although the songs are from the more obscure end of the Western Swing repertoire, with the exception of Corrine Corrina and Right or Wrong, it’s an excellent introduction to this music – a delightful blend of country, swing and jazz. It can sound corny now, but that’s only because it established musical clichés that went on to be used by so many other popular genres.

So while Jerry Wexler died a couple of years ago, he can rest easy knowing that Ray and Willie have done him, and Western Swing, proud.

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