Since he broke away from the Nashville machine in the early '70s, Willie Nelson has only made the music he felt like making ... and he's made a lot of it. One of the greatest aspects of the 82-year-old Texas legend's long career is his astonishing body of recorded work -- there's enough to keep a fan happy for decades to come.
What's especially remarkable about Nelson's prolific catalog is how much he's added to it in just the last few years. Thanks to Nelson's record deal with the artist-respecting Legacy Recordings label and his partnership with veteran producer Buddy Cannon, we've been treated to six albums since 2012. In true Willie fashion, their songs and musical styles run the gamut.
The 2012 collection Heroes found ol' Willie mixing it up with all manner of creative compadres, from Billy Joe Shaver to Snoop Dogg to the singer's own sons, Lukas and Micah. Band of Brothers (2014) brought us Nelson's first new original songs in years. Last year's Django and Jimmie was a nostalgic duet record with the great Merle Haggard.
My personal favorite of Nelson's Legacy works, 2013's To All the Girls, featured collaborations with Nelson's favorite female singers. The experience of hearing him sing with the likes of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and Mavis Staples complements well the breaths of fresh air that are duets with Secret Sisters, Miranda Lambert and other younger talents.
While those guest-heavy collections pack pleasant surprises in every track, there's also something to be said for Nelson's ability to establish and sustain a mood. He's never sounded more romantic and wistful than on the 1978 classic Stardust and its follow-up standards collections. So it's fantastic news for lovers of those sonic forays that his next album is equally as timeless and affecting.
Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin (coming out Friday, but currently streaming at NPR.org/music) arrives a few months after Nelson accepted the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Nelson recorded 11 George and Ira Gershwin gems for the album in honor of the composers' legacy, but he certainly didn't need any reason to do it beyond the richness of the material.
If the term "easy listening" weren't saddled with a stigma of cheesiness, that's what I'd use to describe the new collection. There's no effort required to vibe with it. The artist delivering these songs is as classic, comforting and unassailable as the standards he's taking on.
Nelson understands well the universal appeal of the Gershwin tunes he's selected, and he delivers them in a way that suggests he's been singing them for fun his entire life. He even re-records the Stardust pick "Someone to Watch Over Me," which is fine seeing that it has one of the most naturally beautiful melodies ever conjured up. But that's true of all these tunes, from the romantic sad-sack song "But Not for Me" to the conversational confidence of "They All Laughed."
Backing Willie on Summertime are many of the usual, immensely talented suspects. The steel-guitar of the great Paul Franklin and the instantly identifiable harmonica of Mickey Raphael work with Willie's beautifully nasal sustained notes to make the songs sound just country enough. Sister Bobbie Nelson's honky-tonk piano and Willie's guitar, Trigger, get shining moments on Summertime's title track.
And yes, there are a couple of duets mixed in here, a tossed-off, karaoke rendition of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" with Cyndi Lauper (yes, her) and a misty-eyed "Embraceable You" with Sheryl Crow.
Beginning to end, Summertime is yet another Nelson record you can put on and not worry about hitting "skip." Rather than making some hype-filled splash for an artist who doesn't need one, it simply reminds us that Willie knows what's best for Willie.