Willie Nelson Brings It Back To Western Swing Two Austin musical institutions — Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel — have teamed up on a new album to showcase classic western swing. With horns, fiddles and a pedal steel guitar, the music takes Nelson back to his roots. The project has been in the works for a while, having hatched from the mind of the great Jerry Wexler more than 30 years ago.
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Willie Nelson Brings It Back To Western Swing

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Willie Nelson Brings It Back To Western Swing

Willie Nelson Brings It Back To Western Swing

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Willie Nelson has collaborated with everyone - really, just about everyone -from jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to the Spanish singer Julio Iglesias. Nelson's latest collaboration brings him a little closer to home. He's playing the music of one of his idols, western swing master Bob Wills, with the band Asleep at the Wheel.

It's the kind of old-style music you might have heard long ago, when Bob Wills' tour bus would stop by at a honky tonk beside the highway.

NPR's John Burnett caught up with Willie Nelson and friends at just such a place.

JOHN BURNETT: Willie's Place is a combination truck stop, restaurant and dance hall an hour south of Dallas. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel are playing tonight, and the place is packed.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Live on the radio from Carl's Corner. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: Carl's Corner, Texas, is a tiny municipality created for the sole purpose of selling beer in a dry county. In an earlier day, Carl's Corner was known far and wide as a way station for lonely truckers looking for love on the interstate, the kind of place that Willie might have sung about.

(Soundbite of song, "Bring It On Down To My House Honey")

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician): (Singing) Bring it down to my house, honey. Ain't nobody home but me. Bring it on down to my house, honey. I need your company.

BURNETT: The proprietor, Carl Cornelius, is shocked that anyone would suggest such a thing.

Mr. CARL CORNELIUS (Proprietor, Carl's Corner): Don't have any of that kind of stuff. People live in a world of fantasy, so somebody can say something as a joke, and then that's just not the truth.

BURNETT: Nowadays, 18-wheelers line up to buy diesel and a boutique biofuel called Willie's Biodiesel. Inside, it's a shrine to the 75-year-old country music icon, who's a part owner.

Unidentified Woman: I've got Willie Nelson Born For Trouble caps. Some of my bandanas - I have Willie's standard red bandana.

BURNETT: Culturally, Carl's Corner sits in the heart of a region with rusting cotton gins, well-kept Baptist churches, and deep musical roots.

(Soundbite of music)

BURNETT: Call it the triangle of twang. Nelson grew up just down the interstate, in the farming town of Abbott. Over in Mexia lived the great country and western songstress Cindy Walker. And Fort Worth was home of the King of Western Swing, Bob Wills.

(Soundbite of song, "Hesitation Blues")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Woke up this morning, looking for my shoes, looked behind the trunk, found the hesitation blues. Lordy tell me how long.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Lordy tell me how long.

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Will I have to wait?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Will I have to wait?

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Can I get you now?

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Can I get you now?

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Must I hesitate?

BURNETT: This song is off the new CD, "Willie and the Wheel." The executive producer is the late, legendary Jerry Wexler, who helped launch the careers of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among others. Nelson was signed briefly to Atlantic Records in the early '70s, when Wexler decided that Willie should do a tribute to western swing.

Mr. NELSON: He always wanted to do this album. He wrote down the titles of these songs, and he wanted to see me do them at some point, you know, because he loved western swing, and he knew the music.

BURNETT: It was a natural concept for Nelson because this is the music he was raised on.

Mr. NELSON: You know, I was - I've been in a band ever since I was 10 or 12 years old, in one kind or another, and we always sang Bob Wills because that was the hot music of the day.

BURNETT: Nelson left Atlantic before he could do the western swing album, but Wexler never forgot the concept. In 2007, more than 30 years later, he called up Nelson's manager and suggested Willie team up with Asleep at the Wheel to do the record.

(Soundbite of song, "Fan It")

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) If this song's too hot, cool it if you can, or go out and get yourself a five-cent fan and fan it.

BURNETT: Nelson - his hair in a long, gray braid - sits in his tour bus across from Ray Benson, leader of the Wheel, leaning against a stove and crossing his size 15 cowboy boots. Benson says he was honored to co-produce Wexler's last project.

Mr. RAY BENSON (Band Leader, Asleep at the Wheel): I'd send him mixes in the mail, and he heard the finished tune of, I think, about seven of them, and then he passed away just a month before it was totally packaged.

BURNETT: Jerry Wexler died last August at 91 after a half-century in the music business.

As for Nelson and Benson, they go back a long way. It was Willie who first invited the Wheel - then a cowboy-hippie band playing around the Bay Area - to think about a new home.

Mr. NELSON: I told him he should go to Austin, bring his band, because I'd heard them and thought they were great. And I knew that everybody in Texas would love it.

Mr. BENSON: And we loved Willie Nelson because Willie's approach to music was ours. If it's a good song and there's a little bit of jazz, a little bit of country, a little bit of blues, that's what it was about.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

BURNETT: In the crowd tonight is Joe Nick Patoski, Texas music journalist and author of the recent biography, "Willie Nelson: An Epic Life." Patoski has heard Willie's collaborations with Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsalis and Snoop Dog. But to him, the swinging cowboy jazz band on stage tonight feels like Nelson has come home.

Mr. JOE NICK PATOSKI (Music Journalist): All these cats are pickers. Forget that they're songwriters or entertainers. They're jazz players, and they're playing hot, and this is what counts.

BURNETT: Fellow country outlaw Waylon Jennings sang this about his old friend Willie Nelson: He'll be the first to tell you, Bob Wills is still the king. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

(Soundbite of song, "You Pretty Woman")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, you pretty woman.

Mr. NELSON: (Singing) Well, lots of these and plenty of those, and boy oh boy, those sweaty clothes.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, you pretty woman.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I never kiss her more than once unless she just demands it. When she holds me closer, dear, I like it, but I can't stand it. (Unintelligible), made my heart go poo-poo-pee-doo.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Oh, you pretty woman.

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