“My Way” by Willie Nelson

When news broke about Willie Nelson doing an album of Frank Sinatra tunes, the first instinct was to read the headline again. He’s doing what?

But after a moment of reflection, it makes sense. Nelson has a long history of tackling the great American songbook – Stardust, for example, was a whole album of them – and back in the 90s, he even cut a track with Sinatra. But what makes My Way different is his approach: he didn’t try and make these songs into country blues like he did with Stardust, but approached them straight: brushed drums, horn sections and even a boatload of strings.

Of course, this approach was also nothing new for Nelson, who’s done it all and then some throughout his career.

In the early 70s, he hooked up with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and cut Shotgun Willie, which was probably the first time Atlantic Records released a country record. It too was packed with horns, driving rhythms and Nelson stretching his voice. In more than a few ways, it anticipates My Way (check “Slow Down Old World” for an especially startling similarity); and unlike Bob Dylan’s reworking of the Sinatra songbook, he’s not working new angles or a new persona.

My Way opens with “Fly Me to the Moon,” where against brushed drums, an acoustic piano and a horn section, Nelson sounds like he could be working the Vegas strip. But when he steps back, the band leans into a tasteful guitar solo and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica plays in the background. Suddenly, the honky-tonks aren’t too far away.

Meanwhile, “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” starts with a low-key, piano/harmonica accompaniment but slowly builds with a lovely string section, blanketing his voice and giving the song a charming, late-night vibe. “It Was a Very Good Year” builds from a similarly sparse vibe, climaxing with another Raphael harmonica solo. Indeed, he’s something of the secret weapon here: his playing is all over this record, giving it a much-needed sense of contrast. Without him, it could well have easily strayed into bombast and cliché, but his playing keeps the music with one foot deep into country.

There are moments which don’t quite click. For example, “A Foggy Day” is played with an upbeat, jazzy arrangement and comes complete with a piano solo. It’s not a bad performance, but something feels off about Nelson’s voice and the quick arrangement – indeed, he barely figures in this one, instead letting the backing band do most of the work. The duet with Norah Jones is also interesting, although she does most of the heavy lifting on that track. But then again, Nelson’s 85 years old.

However, “I’ll Be Around” has the lonely twang of Paul Franklin’s steel guitar and is perhaps the closest thing to straight country on this album. It’s an interesting approach, and something of an outlier on this record, and not in a bad way. It suggest that Nelson could have approached the whole album this way, had he wanted to, and done it successfully.

It closes with the title track, with Nelson treats with respect, although not with the same bombast that Sinatra used to put into this song. Where Sinatra made that into his theme, Nelson’s approach is slower and more reflective – the approach of a man deep into his fifth decade as a recording artist, who has done things his own way.

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