Legends run the risk of becoming gimmicks. When Aretha Franklin is trotted out at Obama’s inauguration, befitted in her enormous hat to sing the National Anthem, the effect is less musical than it is contextual. It’s not about Aretha singing the anthem, it’s about “Aretha” singing the “anthem”. A voice that’s iconic and unique and immediately recognizable can actually become a weakness. The voice will never be subsumed into the music, supporting and communicating the song. You will always be a celebrity first, and an artist second.
Willie Nelson has chosen an odd but effective strategy to combat this mummification of his image: debasement. If he duets with anyone and everyone in earshot, his singing can never become sanctified or inert. In a way, it’s a canny strategy. The “legend” tag, while entirely earned and deserved, has always been somewhat at odds with Nelson’s low-key persona as the ramblin’ singer and guitar-picker, lover of life and devoted pot-head. So he just does everything, devaluing his myth by singing with Rob Thomas and Snoop Dogg, appearing in The Dukes of Hazzard, and campaigning for Kinky Friedman. It takes the pressure off and keeps the mothballs at bay.
His life looks like a hell of a lot of fun, but the resulting art isn’t always good. His new album with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel is a nice ride, as far as it goes. It sounds lively in the background — all swingin’ horns and jazz guitar underlying Willie’s laid-back, quicksilver voice — but there isn’t much there to listen to. There are a handful of great moments — the brass-band carnival on “Hestitation Blues”, the goofball joy of hearing Nelson sing lines like “I ain’t gonna give nobody none of my jelly-roll” — and Willie’s in rare form throughout, loose as ever, richly amused, making the most unusual phrasings sound natural and obvious. But the album’s ultimately predictable, polished, even a little phony. It has nothing to do with the outlaw country that made Nelson a star. It’s great stuff for middle-aged people to put on at cocktail parties. I intend this as less of a condemnation than it probably sounds, but I don’t mean it as a compliment.
To be fair, there are one or two terrific performances. “Bring It on Down to My House, Honey” is a legitimately great hootenanny, freewheeling and alive, but it could have used more of the DIY, punky spirit of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions, which deflated what could have been a staid tribute by cranking everything to 11 and playing wild and loose. Asleep at the Wheel are far too expert for all that. A lot of the fun feels like “fun” — studied, polished replicas of the kind of music that people loved without taking too seriously when it was organic and new. On “Oh! You Pretty Woman”, when Jason Roberts sings “She made my heart go boop-boopy-doop”, squeaking goofily on the last syllables, it sounds pandering, po-faced, like the mugging, forced mirth of a children’s entertainer. It sounds self-conscious. It sounds like a recreation.
Respect and seriousness are poison to this kind of music. There’s an almost finger-waggingly schoolmarm-ish quality to the goings on here, as though we’re being told to eat our vegetables, when this stuff should be cotton candy, disposable, lighter than air, teeth-rottingly delightful. Willie brings everything he’s got to bear, acquiting himself admirably in an otherwise miscalculated effort. He’s the ideal singer for this sort of material, but a magical voice like his just doesn’t belong in such mundane, stilted surroundings.