Willie Nelson sang from the Great American Songbook as early as 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind, and with 1978’s Stardust he demonstrated a unique affinity for pop standards. He continued to draw on this material for decades to come, including 1981’s Over the Rainbow, 1983’s Without a Song and 1988’s What a Wonderful World. His latest collection of pop and country standards is a low-key affair without backing vocals or orchestrations, leaving Nelson’s voice isolated out front of his Family band. His idiosyncratic phrasing continues to serve this type of material wonderfully, but unlike the statement of Stardust, this set is more of a Saturday night jam than a staged performance. With his sister Bobbie and longtime compadres Mickey Raphael and Paul English on board, the sessions feel as if Nelson’s calling out favorites for the group to pick up. The players slide easily into familiar songs, and though the solos can be tentative, the warmth these musicians share, Nelson’s deep feeling for the material and his inimitable singing are all worth hearing.
Nelson’s recorded many of these songs before, a few several times over. He waxed “You’ll Never Know” in 1983 and again in 1994, but this third time he shares the stage more fully with the piano accompaniment. His original “Is the Better Part Over” is stripped of the strings heard on 1989’s A Horse Called Music, and though nominally about a relationship that’s run it’s course, at age 79, one can hear Nelson singing about his life. “Vous Et Moi” digs more deeply into the percussiveness of Nelson’s guitar strings than the 1999 version heard on Night and Day, and “Twilight Time” is sung in a lower, less-nasal register than his earlier version. Floyd Tillman’s oft-recorded “I’ll Keep on Loving You” provides a gentle western swing, and Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” which might seem an odd companion here, fits nicely as semi-acoustic, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll. Nelson greets these songs like old friends, but with renewed enthusiasm each time they meet. [©2013 Hyperbolium]