Last week, Willie Nelson made headlines when he announced that he would be playing a concert in support of Texas’ Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Beto O’Rourke. News outlets made much of the fact that some of the artist’s conservative fans perceived a betrayal, but in truth, Nelson has always followed his heart and stayed true to his own convictions. He shared that in common with the late Frank Sinatra, his friend and onetime duet partner. The appropriately-titled My Way is a heartfelt and snappy celebration of the legendary Chairman of the Board from Nelson, an artist who’s earned the right to pay tribute to Sinatra as a peer. He does so in engaging and understated fashion.
On My Way, Nelson surrounds himself with a crack band consisting of Matt Rollings (piano, organ), Jay Bellerose (drums), David Piltch (acoustic bass), Dean Parks (guitars), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), the inevitable Mickey Raphael (harmonica), and a seven-piece horn section. He, of course, plays Trigger from which those seemingly effortless, Django Reinhardt-like solos flow. Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh’s evergreen “Young at Heart” may as well be Nelson’s credo; his rendition is as genial as one would imagine.
Nelson’s conversational style is welcoming throughout. Like Bob Dylan’s recent albums in tribute to Sinatra, Nelson makes the songs his own without sacrificing the intentions of the (classic) songwriters represented. He brings a restrained elegance to Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind,” with Mickey Raphael’s languid harmonica blowing like the titular breeze. Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon” and Alec Wilder’s bittersweet promise that “I’ll Be Around” (“when he’s gone”) are similarly affecting.
The presence of brass lends heft to the arrangements which cook in true western swing-style on standards such as Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” and the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day.” The latter, a reprise of the song which Nelson sang with Sinatra on the elder statesman’s Duets II album, boasts a tasty piano solo courtesy of Rollins. A playfulness permeates the familiar opening piano notes of “One for My Baby.” Nelson emphasizes the saloon in this saloon song; the saloon is, of course, a honky-tonk, and he’s the wizened barfly who’s touchingly looking back, accompanied by a gentle bed of strings. Nelson previously recorded the Arlen/Mercer song as the title track of his 1979 joint album with Leon Russell, and he approaches it as an older and wiser artist.
Indeed, with Nelson now beyond the September of his years, the time couldn’t be more right for Ervin Drake’s moving recollection, “It Was a Very Good Year.” Producers Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings underpin the tune’s verses with a primal rhythm, wisely deploying strings for dramatic effect and as an effective counterpoint to Nelson’s always-relaxed vocals. Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” gets an easygoing jazz gait that’s tailor-made for Willie’s gifts as an interpreter; he last recorded it in instrumental form as the title track of his 1999 album. The night part of the equation is conjured when Nelson is joined by Norah Jones for an intimate, smoky duet of the age-old question, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”
The most unexpected selection might be the one Nelson has cited as his favorite track on the album. The grandiose anthem “My Way” would seem far from a natural fit for his casual style. Yet he digs into the meat of Paul Anka’s lyrics, imbuing them with truth and the depth that can only come from a life as well-lived and long-lived as his own. It’s a moving, wistful reading from the artist, and one of which Sinatra would likely have been proud. The feel couldn’t be more different than Sinatra’s – it’s quiet where the original is grandiose – but it’s true to the artist and cuts to the bone.
It’s been just over 40 years since Willie Nelson released Stardust, his first proper standards album in which he recorded a number of songs associated with Frank Sinatra. Since then, he’s released many, many albums of such material for numerous labels. However, My Way makes it clear that the well has far from run dry. Transcending labels like country and pop, the match of Willie Nelson and the music of the Great American Songbook is a marriage made in Heaven.
- Fly Me to the Moon
- Summer Wind
- One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)
- A Foggy Day
- It Was a Very Good Year
- Blue Moon
- I’ll Be Around
- Night and Day
- What Is This Thing Called Love? (duet with Norah Jones)
- Young at Heart
- My Way