The up-tempo songs don’t work as well, but there are times when the fine Gershwin suit fits the man to a “T.”
When I was a kid, Willie Nelson represented the high end of badass, the outlaw with a heart and the musical representative of a character in a spaghetti western. He was the Red Headed Stranger whose songs mourned the cowboy hero (urban or otherwise) who lost a love or his life. He celebrated outlaw status, despite being an essential part of the music industry since the 1950s when, as a session musician and songwriter, he crafted the sounds that would help to shape new country. (He wrote the Patsy Cline hit “Crazy.”)
In the ’70s, he mined the nostalgia vein to produce a classic remakes of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (Fred Rose) and “Stardust” (Hoagy Carmichael), among others, to further lift his profile. It became a key aspect of his career to reinterpret classics using his wavy and scratchy voice to deliver lyrics of love and loss. These words held extra emotion, because Nelson often sounded like he was sitting by a campfire, or was the odd man out at a classy joint with his cowboy hat and gray, unkempt beard.
Add to this long and impressive collection his current release, Summertime: Willie Nelson Sing Gershwin. The album is not much of a stretch for Nelson, who, at 82 is allowed to cherry pick whatever the hell he likes. It is, however, a bit discordant at times, for reasons I will approach carefully. The Gershwins have been the choice of interpreters since the moment they put pen to paper in the 1920s. George and Ira were able to craft songs that were both popular and featured a depth that far exceeded the term, combining elements of classical, jazz, and other unique oeuvre. It was party and movie music on the level of high art. As the 20th Century progressed, those songs took on added gravitas via the interpreters: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, and Jimmy Somerville.
Nelson’s slight collection (11 songs) does not stray far from the highlights of any performer’s Gershwin collection, starting off with “But Not for Me” and ending with “Summertime.” Nelson Sings Gershwin has several hiccups where the match of his voice to a song is not quite equal. Part of this comes from the mismatch of theme with performer. I could have lived without the candycorn-flavored version of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with Cyndi Lauper, or Nelson’s interpretation of “I Got Rhythm.”
The up-tempo songs don’t work as well, but there are times when the fine Gershwin suit fits the man to a “T,” with the inclusion of “Summertime” (from Porgy and Bess, the Gershwin masterpiece), “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” They fit so well with Nelson’s voice and the deep emotion he inflicts on his singing with his finely weathered voice.
Nelson is a treasure who has nothing to prove. As a long-lived master craftsman, though, he should choose a bit more carefully, even from a treasure chest like the Gershwins. There is gold in this collection—and a few pieces of brass. B- | Jim Dunn