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Willie Nelson & Family
The title of Willie Nelson’s solo debut on Blue Note Records, American Classic, refers as much to the man himself as to the storied Tin Pan Alley repertoire he explores on this elegant new set. While it’s common now for mature pop artists to attempt to put their own stamp on the American Songbook, Nelson practically invented the approach. He set the standard for, well, playing the standards more than thirty years ago with Stardust, perhaps this “outlaw” entertainer’s most daring move, an album that many industry pundits thought would get him laughed off the charts and out of the biz.
Instead, the Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust—which showcased material from the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and Kurt Weill, among others, in spare, easy-going arrangements—became the most successful album of his career thus far. It reached #1 on the Billboard’s Country Albums chart; racked up more than five million in sales; earned Nelson a Country Male Vocal Performance Grammy; and, most significantly, helped to transform a colorful, middle-aged cult figure into a mainstream star. Encouraging Nelson to record Stardust was Bruce Lundvall, now Blue Note’s head, who had the prescience to sign Nelson to Columbia in the ‘70s and, thirty years later, offer him a home at Blue Note. Nelson’s first effort for the label was his acclaimed 2008 collaboration with Wynton Marsalis, Two Men With the Blues, a spirited live set that debuted at #20 on the Billboard pop chart (Nelson’s highest charting since Always On My Mind hit #2 in 1982).
Fans around the world know that the adventurous Nelson can sing just about anything—and with just about anyone he pleases. As he sees it, “The more songs you know, the more musicians you listen to, the more writers you hear, the better equipped you are to decide where you want to go next. That’s why I want to listen to everyone and everything and then decide which way I want to go. Then, of course, I might change my mind and go in an entirely different direction. But at least I have all these options.”
On American Classic, he’s joined, on vocals and piano, by Diana Krall in an intimate rendition of “If I Had You” that feels more like pillow talk than mere wishful thinking. (“It came off so well—she’s so smooth and her piano playing is the best,” praises Nelson.) He also duets with Norah Jones, countering playful protestations with romantic persuasion on Frank Loesser’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” (“That particular song has a lot of meaning for me,” Nelson admits, “and it’s obvious that I enjoy singing with her.”) Backing musicians include such notable jazzmen as pianist Joe Sample, bassist Christian McBride, Krall guitarist Anthony Wilson, and drummer Lewis Nash; Nelson’s longtime sidekick Mickey Raphael, his memorable co-star on Two Men with the Blues, plays harmonica, adding evocative, bluesy inflections to “Angel Eyes” and “Since I Fell For You.”
American Classic represents old-school record-making at its most sumptuously swinging, with a lighthearted yet sophisticated jazz feel. Three-time Grammy Award-winning producer Tommy LiPuma—known for his best-selling work with Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand, Anita Baker, Michael Buble and Krall, among others—helmed the sessions, joined by his veteran engineer-mixer colleague, Al Schmitt. Legendary composer-arranger Johnny Mandel contributed orchestral charts.
When Blue Note chief Lundvall floated the idea of a standards album à la Stardust to LiPuma, the producer recalls, “I said, ‘Man, are you kidding?’ I love Willie and, on top of that, Stardust is my favorite album. Joe Sample and I work a lot together, so I thought I would use Joe to do the rhythm charts and set things up. Joe lives in Houston, and it’s just a drive to Austin for him. We both visited Willie and went over numerous songs with him, maybe 30 to 40 songs.”
Much of the repertoire, Nelson explains, “was picked by Tommy and Joe. They came to the house and we sat around and talked about songs, like ‘The Nearness of You’ and ‘Angel Eyes,’ which is one of my favorite jazz standards. We talked about a lot of great standards.” The vintage tunes they chose, says Nelson, “are of the same quality as Stardust, but we did them a little differently. Tommy put together the band, with guys like Joe, who’s an incredible musician and arranger. Stardust was recorded with my band, but this was done with musicians who were coming, musically, from another place. You can’t beat the players you have on this one, they’re as good as they get.”
The key to the project, notes LiPuma, “was that we all realized how much we loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. That brought us all together. I was a big fan of Wills, as was Joe; Willie, of course, was a huge fan, as well as a huge fan of Django Reinhardt. So after we chose the songs and got the keys and all that stuff, we left a day or so to figure out what made the most sense as far as Willie was concerned, what Willie felt the most comfortable with. We ended up with a Django/Bob Wills feel to the arrangements and Willie fell right into it. ‘The Nearness of You’ was one of the first things that jumped right out, and from there we ended up doing about 16 or 17 tracks, then knocking it down to the ones we put on the album. “
Nelson and LiPuma spent four days in December ‘08 at Legacy Studios in Manhattan, and then reconvened in February at the storied Capital Studio A in Los Angeles, where Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole cut many of their best-known sides, to work with Diana Krall. Throughout the sessions, Nelson’s singing retained its easygoing charm. There’s warmth and humor in his delivery, along with some twinkle-in-the-eye sex appeal. Just check out his rendition of “On the Street Where You Live”—you can feel the eternal spring in his step.
Remarks LiPuma, “Willie is just the best to work with. He’s a very sweet cat. You just go in there and if you get something and it feels right, it’s right. You don’t belabor it. That’s the way I like to work, too. And that’s basically how it was—we went into Legacy and within four days we got all 17 tracks. We did the Diana Krall duet in L.A. One take and boom, we were finished. Twenty minutes. That was it. The rhythm section really had a sense as to what Willie was all about. All these guys were just so respectful of the guy and what he did. They’re great musicians in their own right but they all had huge respect for him and gave him all the room in the world.”
As a Nashville artist in the ‘60s, Nelson himself penned more than a few tunes that have arguably become American classics themselves, including “Crazy,” “Night Life” and the sublime “Funny How Time Slips Away.” But that was just the prologue for the iconoclastic singer-songwriter, who would redraw the borders of country music in the ‘70s after moving back to Texas and settling in the musical melting pot of Austin. Along with fellow traveler Waylon Jennings, Nelson was labeled the outlaw of the genre, but he was more visionary than rebel, especially with the way he attracted rock fans to take a closer look at country. He was celebrated for his work with buddies like Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, but scaled even greater chart heights by singing, improbably enough, with Julio Iglesias (“To All the Girls I Loved Before”). Along with Marsalis, recent cohorts have included Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and reggae icon Ziggy Marley.
Nelson ends the album with a re-interpretation of “You Were Always On My Mind,” the one-time Elvis Presley hit that Nelson took to #1 on the country chart and to Top Five on the pop chart in the early eighties. Looking back for a moment, Nelson decides, “Hopefully, I’m a better singer. Hopefully, I’m a better guitar player—you’re either going to get better or worse, you can’t stay in one spot. I like to think that the band and I have progressed a lot and learned a lot from doing these songs. There is truth in the statement that you learn by doing, so the more you do ‘em, the better you get.”
American Classic, then, is clearly Nelson at his best.
Born in Champaign, Illinois, Alison Krauss grew up listening to everything from folk to opera to pop and rock music, but quickly fell in love with bluegrass when she began playing fiddle at the age of five. Shortly after, Krauss began entering fiddle contests. At the age of 14, Rounder Records signed her to her first record deal and she went on to release her debut solo album two years later. The accomplished bluegrass musician became a member of the Grand Ole Opry at age 21.
Since 1985, Krauss has released 14 albums including five solo, seven with her longtime band and musical collaborators Union Station, and the Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand, which was certified platinum and won five Grammys, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year. She’s sold more than 12 million records to date, and her honors include 27 Grammys, nine Country Music Association awards, 14 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, two Academy of Country Music Awards and two Gospel Music Association awards.
Windy City, her latest solo album, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums and Top Bluegrass Albums charts and received two Grammy nominations. The album was produced by Buddy Cannon, whose vocal harmonies Krauss grew up listening to and were the soundtrack to her childhood. “Buddy sang harmonies on everything back then,” Krauss says. She also reveals of Cannon, “I don’t do something unless I feel like I’m called to do it. That’s what I felt like, so I honored it. It’s like the same feeling of when you know something is right musically, with a song or a batch of songs – the same feeling, but this was attached to a person instead of a batch of songs.”
Krauss frequently collaborates with artists from numerous genres, including Dolly Parton, Taylor Swift, Kenny Rogers, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Vince Gill, The Chieftains, James Taylor, The Cox Family, Yo-Yo Ma, Johnny Mathis, Cyndi Lauper, Heart, Bad Company and Phish. She has recorded and toured with Willie Nelson, whom she honored with a performance during the 2015 Gershwin Prize Tribute Concert. She will reunite with Nelson this summer on a co-headlining tour throughout North America. “Whiskey Lullaby,” a duet which she performed with Brad Paisley won two CMA Awards in 2004. She has also produced albums for Alan Jackson, Nickel Creek and The Cox Family. Some of these collaborators were also formative to Krauss and she lists influences including Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Larry Sparks, The Cox Family, and Ralph Stanley.
Krauss has contributed songs to numerous films, including “Down to the River to Pray” in the cult classic film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and “You Will Be My Ain True Love” and “The Scarlett Tide” in the film Cold Mountain. She has also provided the voice for several cartoon movie characters, including Bambi’s mother in Bambi II and Annabelle in Annabelle’s Wish, as well as the singing voice of Davey’s girlfriend in the Adam Sandler movie Eight Crazy Nights.
In 2013, she performed at the Kennedy Center’s “American Voices” festival that was created and hosted by Renee Fleming and also honored Dolly Parton and Paul Simon with performances during The Kennedy Center Honors. She has performed for three presidents—George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Since forming 10 years ago, the buzz surrounding Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real has been quietly intensifying. During that time, the 28-year old singer/songwriter/guitarist and his bandmates have played hundreds of shows and major festivals all over the world and built a devoted underground following. Lukas’ profile continued to rise when he contributed three songs and heavenly vocals to his dad Willie Nelson’s 2012 album, Heroes, their voices blending with potent DNA. Then two years later, life took another turn skyward when Neil Young decided to make Promise of the Real his touring and studio band. Young has guided the grateful young musicians ever since as they’ve backed the legend on tour around the world and on his two most recent albums.
These experiences were undoubtedly invaluable, but none of what has come before will prepare you for the cosmic country soul of Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, the band’s new, self-titled album, a mesmerizing, emotionally genuine, endlessly rewarding work set for release on Fantasy Records. From the epic “Set Me Down on a Cloud” to the climactic “If I Started Over,” the album delivers one sublime song and inspired performance after another.
“I knew I had a lot of good songs that transcended the cultural boundaries between rock & roll and country,” Lukas says of his vision for the album. “I wanted to get the songs as pure as they could be. We owe a lot to Neil; we made this record after coming off the road with him for two years. Neil’s been mentoring us, and we’ve been absorbing that energy, and I think it shows. We got acclimated to a different level of artistic expression. We’ve grown.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, produced by song-shaping specialist John Alagia (numerous Dave Matthews Band LPs, John Mayer’s Room for Squares) was recorded at The Village Studios in West Los Angeles. Promise of the Real’s six-piece line-up now includes longtime bandmates Tato Melgar (percussion), Anthony LoGerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass, vocals) along with new members Jesse Siebenberg (steel guitars, Farfisa organ, vocals) and Alberto Bof (piano, Wurlitzer, Hammond B3). Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta (who convincingly plays the role of Bonnie to Lukas’ Delaney) added her signature vocals to the rousing “Carolina” and “Find Yourself,” while Jess Wolfe and Holly Lessig of the Brooklyn-based indie-pop duo Lucius provide backing vocals on five of the 12 tracks, evoking Exile on Main St.’s ecstatic, gospel-rooted harmonies.
The band’s many influences can be discerned in the opening track, “Set Me Down on a Cloud,” a soulful country rocker that features Lucius’ spiritual vocals and an extended solo underscores Lukas’ tasteful guitar virtuosity.
The lilting, pastoral “Just Outside of Austin” features a guitar solo from Willie, while Lukas’ 86-year-old Aunt Bobbi plays piano. “It’s a love letter to Austin, something like Roger Miller or Glen Campbell would write,” he said.
“Runnin’ Shine,” one of the album’s first-person character studies, is written from the perspective of a young moonshiner trying to outsmart the law while hurtling along Appalachian back roads in a souped-up car loaded with homemade booze. “Perspective is huge,” says Lukas. “If you’re able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and you can relate to them, it’s really hard to hate them, even if you don’t agree with how they live their life.”
Two of the album’s most breathtaking songs, “Find Yourself” and “Forget About Georgia,” vividly retrace the turbulent final stages and bittersweet aftermath of the same doomed love affair. “After the relationship ended, I had to play Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” every night when I was on the road with my dad, which made it literally impossible to forget about her.” Introduced by a wistful four-note guitar lick that reoccurs throughout the arrangement, “Forget About Georgia” unfolds to a “Layla”-like outpouring of romantic yearning, as the band stretches out behind Lukas’ emotional guitar soloing. Not surprisingly, it’s Young’s favorite song on the album.
Inspired by the big ballads of Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, Lukas delivers a full-throttle vocal on the closing track, “If I Started Over,” at once a cosmic rumination and a rapturous expression of romantic devotion. “The song is asking, what if, after we die, we just come back? What if we have to do the same dream again until we learn the right lessons?”
A seasoned veteran at 28, Austin-born Lukas grew up in Maui, while spending much of his time during school breaks in his hometown and on the road with his dad. “I had a lot of passions growing up,” he says. “I played soccer, I was on the swim team, living a Maui lifestyle, surfing and skateboarding. I also loved singing and wrote my first song when I was 11. I became obsessed with guitar, playing eight to 10 hours a day. I knew what I wanted to do from a super-young age, and I made my life about it.” He and his brother Micah played in bands together in high school, and they struck up a friendship with Uruguay-born Tato Melgar, a skilled musician then making his living as a landscaper, who taught the brothers the basics of drumming.
In 2007, Lukas headed to the mainland to attend L.A.’s Loyola Marymount University. A year later, after meeting LoGerfo at a Neil Young concert, he dropped out of school and started a band with LoGerfo, Melgar and original bassist Merlyn Kelly; he named it Promise of the Real, referencing a line in Young’s 1973 song “Walk On”: “Sooner or later it all gets real.” When McCormick joined two years later on bass, the POTR lineup was set. The band woodshedded; averaging more than 200 shows a year. Drawing on Lukas’ lineage as well surrogate uncles like Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and the classic rock and roll of J.J. Cale, The Band, Clapton era Delaney and Bonnie and of course mentor Neil Young, they began to develop their own distinctive style of American music.
Young befriended the band after checking them out at Farm Aid several years back. “Neil got in touch after that, and we started talking by email,” Lukas recounts. “Eventually, he asked us to record with him. So we recorded The Monsanto Years and played some shows together, and we fell in love with each other musically, one thing led to another and we became Neil’s band.
“What’s happened with us feels similar to the career trajectory of The Band,” he continues. “They were already a great band when they started working with Dylan, who lifted them up, which is similar to what Neil’s done for us. He’s also given people a chance to hear what we’re doing and what our own songs have to offer. Then we played the Desert Trip with Neil, along with Paul McCartney, the Stones, the Who and Dylan. That was incredible.”
Those two weekends in Indio last October turned out to be extremely fortuitous. “We met Lucius at Desert Trip,” says Lukas. “They were playing with Roger Waters—and still are. Then they came to the Bridge School Benefit, where we really got to know them. I love Jess and Holly—they really enhance the record.”
Bradley Cooper also saw Lukas play at Desert Trip, and right afterward contacted a mutual friend about helping him on the new film he’s directing and starring in, a remake of A Star is Born. “At first I was just helping him out, and then I started writing with Stefani (Lady Gaga), who’s in the movie. We connected and she and I became really close. I got very involved in this film and ended up bringing the band into it as well.”
Coming of age in a celebrated musical family, Lukas Nelson learned early on that true originality is hard won, never given. Doubtlessly blessed with a measure of musical ability, it’s clear that his natural gifts have been honed by a singular devotion to craft and a deep appreciation for the sacrifice a creative life requires. Elated by the way things have come together so beautifully, Lukas is gratified that POTR have earned this moment and seized the opportunities that have led to this album—all perfectly capturing what he’d heard in his head 18 months earlier.
“It’s just amazing how things have flowed,” Lukas marvels. “It feels divine in a way.”