- Willie Nelson with Asleep at the Wheel.
Fado, the blues-like vernacular music of Portugal, is defined by the characteristic its makers and native aficionados call saudade, a tough-to-pin-down quality that roughly translates as the “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist.” It’s a bittersweet longing similar to what we term nostalgia in that it carries the mixed happy and sad feelings for lost memories, yet different in that it also contains the knowingly vain hope that what is longed for might someday return. Perhaps the closest America comes to this elusive essence is the magnificently poignant mood of Willie Nelson’s1975 masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger (Columbia Records).
In Nelson’s grainy, sweet, warm, and world-weary voice we hear the accumulated collective wistfulness of America’s people as well as America itself; its environment and the physical textures of its landscape. Just close your eyes and listen, it’s all there: the parched, red mesas of the Arizona desert, the high, windy crags of the Rockies; the vast, grassy flatness of the Great Plains; the deserted, streamer-strewn post-Mardi Gras streets; the sad, lonely drunk in the corner of a Brooklyn bar at closing time.
Certainly the evocative qualities of Nelson’s singing, along with his immeasurable gifts as a genre-transcending composer (a one-time Nashville songplugger, his hits for others include Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Faron Young’s “Hello Walls”), are among what has endeared him to musical luminaries from far beyond his given country idiom. Among the 75-year-old singer’s admirers and collaborators number figures from the worlds of jazz (Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis), pop crooning (Julio Iglesias), soul (Joe Hinton, who covered his “Funny (How Time Slips Away)”), and rock (Supersuckers, Sinead O’Connor, Tin Hat Trio); avant rocker Carla Bozulich was even moved to record Red Headed Stranger—with guesting by the Stranger himself—in its entirety in 2003. Never one to play it safe as an artist, Nelson has borrowed from all of the above styles for his own music, as well as from the Great American Songbook (1978’s Stardust; Columbia) and even reggae (2005’s Countryman; Lost Highway Records). He’s also the author of three books, the most recent being 2007’s The Tao of Willie Nelson (Gotham Press), a ruminative collection of stories, jokes, adages, and life lessons.
Nelson’s newest album is Willie & the Wheel (2008, Bismeaux Records), a collaboration with venerated Western swing outfit Asleep at the Wheel (the band also serves as Nelson’s backing unit for his current tour). In truth, however, Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel had a third esteemed contributor for the album’s sessions: the late Atlantic Records A&R giant Jerry Wexler, who handpicked the disc’s program of Western swing classics. For lovers of truly fine American music, it’s a combination worthy of heaven itself.
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel will perform at the Palace Theater in Albany on February 15 at 7:30pm. (518) 476-1000; www.palacealbany.com.