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Review: Willie Nelson’s Understated Standards Set ‘My Way’

This American Songbook collection recalls the greatness of 1975’s ‘Stardust’

willie nelson my way

James Minchin III

It’s fitting Nelson’s latest set is named for the Frank Sinatra/Sid Vicious signature, which arrives just as far-right internet trolls are wetting themselves over his support of progressive Democrat Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke (“I can’t believe Willie Nelson’s a communist man what a heartbreak” rues one thoughtful observer on the singer’s Facebook page). And it’s doubly fitting Nelson’s reading of the song, usually oversung by half – most forgivably by Sinatra, the subject of this American Songbook collection – is a model of restraint, each line measured and delivered with a softspoken confidence antithetical to the hothead tones that constitutes our current cultural conversation.

This concise set – 11 songs, 35 minutes – is produced and arranged by Nelson’s longtime wingman and Nashville session vet Matt Rollings. The settings are appropriately Sinatra-esque, alternately small-group jazzy (Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” spiked with harmonica and pedal steel) or lushly orchestral (a moving take on Ervin Drake’s wise-geezer reflection “A Very Good Year”). Nelson proved his interpretive chops 40 years ago on Stardust, his first standards set, which launched the gold rush trend — that album is quintuple-platinum at last count and still earning coin. If this one isn’t quite its equal, it’s still a joy. Nelson was pals with Sinatra back in the day, and by his own admission, learned a thing or two about phrasing from him, specifically about hovering outside the beat, and he sings these songs like he’s having a chat with you. The high point may be “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” a song he sang back in 1979 with Leon Russell on their tandem One For The Road LP and improves on here. And the latest of many tag-teams with his Texas kin Norah Jones, “What Is This Thing Called Love,” suggests his next standards project should be an overdo album of duets with her. It’s not like he doesn’t have another one, or dozen, in him.

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