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Commentary: Willie And The Wheel


By David Okamoto, Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Lone Star icons Willie Nelson and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel couldn't have taken more different paths to wind up at the same place on Willie and the Wheel, their first full-album collaboration on Western swing classics.

At age 75, Nelson has juggled country tradition with iconoclastic forays into reggae and jazz as well as cool collaborations with Ryan Adams and Daniel Lanois. He's the only country artist who can claim to have covered songs by both Lefty Frizzell and Peter Gabriel. Meanwhile, 57-year-old Wheel leader Benson has maintained a towering presence on the Texas music scene for more than 30 years by preserving the legacy of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys - with results that have been reverent but sometimes redundant.

What makes Willie and the Wheel such a delight is that it reins in Nelson's artistic wanderlust while loosening up Benson's tradition-bound tendencies - the horn-and fiddle-driven arrangements swing with an effortless charm that sounds familiar but never phoned in. Some of this can be attributed to the song choices, which offset predictable oldies like "Corinna, Corinna" and "Hesitation Blues" with such inspired treats as Milton Brown's "Sweet Jennie Lee," jazz pianist Bennie Moten's "South," an obscure Bob Wills barnburner called "Oh! You Pretty Woman," and a Bourbon Street romp through Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon's vaudeville favorite, "Fan It."

Credit the tasteful selections to the late Jerry Wexler, the legendary soul music producer who originally pitched a Western swing tribute album to Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel back when Nelson was signed to Atlantic Records in the early 70s. Marking Willie's initials on stacks of old vinyl LPs, Wexler - who served as executive producer of the album up until his death last fall - had already chosen the songs. So their only challenge was to live up to his vision.

And while the red-headed renegade who introduced "Bloody Mary Morning" and "Whiskey River" three decades ago may have done these songs justice, the 21st century Nelson does these songs proud. His warm, weathered voice may no longer have the playful lilt that made 1978's standards album Stardust such an unexpected triumph, but his behind-the-beat phrasing still sounds both rugged and romantic.

In its umpteenth incarnation, Asleep at the Wheel makes this music, much of it dating back to the 1930s, sound remarkably timeless. Benson and pedal steel guitarist Eddie Rivers spike the punchy arrangements with tight, tasteful solos, and newest band member Elizabeth McQueen, a versatile singer who has been one of Austin's best-kept secrets for years, perfectly plays Nelson's boozy, bluesy foil on "Sittin' On Top of the World."

Previous Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel duets like 1988's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" came across more like novelties. But Willie and the Wheel is much more heartfelt than hokey, capturing the laid back sound of a dancehall band just playing for tips, but also playing for keeps.

David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo in Dallas and a music critic whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, ICE magazine and the Dallas Morning News.

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