Willie Nelson’s latest album My Way is billed is as a tribute to Frank Sinatra. But it’s really just another chapter in Nelson’s retelling of the Great American Songbook. It features Nelson’s signature dude ranch cabaret sound that he’s perfected over the course of the last four decades, starting with the 1978 classic Stardust.
Throughout My Way, whether he’s backed by a large orchestra or small jazz combo, Nelson has the uncanny ability to make the tracks his own. There’s his instantly recognizable voice, which still sounds impeccable. He infuses the lush arrangements with heavy amounts of harmonica. While Nelson does not break any new musical ground, listening to the record is a bit like hanging out with an old friend, or at the very least, with a familiar (red-headed) stranger.
The album opens with the blazing sound of muted trumpet announcing the intro to “Fly Me to the Moon.” Nelson delivers a bright jazzy rendition of the song. Though the track clocks in at just under three minutes, there’s still enough time for a minute-long guitar solo.
For track two, Nelson takes on the wedding-dance staple, “Summer Wind.” He slows the track down and sings it with a bit more of a somber edge, as if to give it the feel of a breakup song. He then shifts into an actual breakup tune: “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road).” Nelson released a duet of the song with Leon Russell in 1979. Here he opens with a bit of solo piano that sounds like its was recorded by a “Piano Man” in some lonely bar, but then ups the intensity by adding in a full orchestra.
Nelson keeps the record swinging with upbeat takes on Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s classic “Blue Moon” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” He also delivers a feisty romantic duet with Norah Jones of “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
One of his more compelling tracks is his reworking of “It Was a Very Good Year.” Nelson recorded the song as a duet with Ray Charles for Charles’ final 2004 album Genius Loves Company. In that version, Charles and Nelson turned the song into an elegiac, mournful ballad. Here, Nelson infuses the track with a bossa nova beat and makes it a mindful celebration of good times and good ladies past.
Nelson closes out the album with two tracks that best embody the spirit of the record. With the penultimate tune “Young at Heart” Nelson preaches what we can assume is his philosophy of aging as he sings out, “Fairy tales can come true/it can happen to you/If you’re young at heart.”
For the finale, Sinatra’s signature tune “My Way,” Nelson starts out with a lot of harmonica as if it’s an old campfire song, then slowly adds in the full orchestra. At the end, he sings the classic refrain “I did it my way,” then lets it linger a bit for dramatic effect before delivering one final “My way.” For any other artist Nelson’s age, you would say, “well, that’s it, that’s his last word, what more can he say.” But this is Willie Nelson; he’s likely got a few more albums and a number of great covers just waiting to be released.
You can buy My Way at Amazon.