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Willie Nelson & Asleep at the Wheel: Willie and the Wheel

After his Two Men With the Blues summit meeting with Wynton Marsalis, this hookup with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel represents something of a U-turn in Willie Nelson’s long, rambling career, from nearly pure jazz back to Western swing. Having been stablemates when Nelson recorded on the Atlantic label in the early ’70s (where the late Jerry Wexler first conceived this album), and having bunked together, along with Merle Haggard, on the Last of the Breed tour in 2007, the headliners are supremely comfortable with each other.

Benson and his genial band are more comfortable with the music. Nelson is admirably on the beat for “Hesitation Blues” and “Bring It on Down to My House,” but he lags precipitously behind on “Sweet Jennie Lee” while Asleep’s backup singers remain nonchalantly on track, and he pretty much falls off “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon.” Benson carries his share of the vocal burdens with a rusticated charm, most memorably on “Oh! You Pretty Woman.” That’s where Elizabeth McQueen makes her discreet entrance, feminizing the backup vocal, a mere prelude to the cowgirl tension she brings to her bluesy duet with Nelson on “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.”

Eddie Rivers on steel guitar and Jason Roberts on fiddle are the most frequent soloists, with Paul (Letterman) Shaffer and guitarist Vince Gill peeping in the studio for “South,” the one pure instrumental on the playlist.

Originally Published