Willie and the Wheel
The latest installment in Willie Nelson’s once-a-month release schedule finds him fronting Ray Benson’s band, Asleep at the Wheel. The genesis of Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux) dates back 36 years, when famed Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler signed Nelson and helped launch his outlaw-country career. Wexler wanted Nelson to do a western swing album, but Nelson didn’t stay at Atlantic long enough for it to happen. The project was forgotten until 2003, when Wexler entrusted his western swing albums to Benson, who noticed the initials “W.N.” written beside some of the songs. Soon Wexler and Benson were collaborating on the project, which was completed just prior to Wexler’s death, last year. To no one’s surprise, the result is a vintage delight. Nelson displayed real affinity for the music on his 2006 Cindy Walker tribute, and his recent work with Wynton Marsalis showed off his gift for jazz inflections and syncopated swing phrasing. Asleep at the Wheel are peerless western swing traditionalists, and Wexler was unerring in his song selection. The album is the Texas music equivalent of a slam dunk. The only real question is, What took so long?