Better known as 'Mr. R&B', Jerry Wexler was a great fan of the original Western Swing bands like Bob Wills, Milton Brown, Cliff Bruner - all first introduced to him while he was studying journalism in Kansas City. Willie Nelson also had grown up on Western Swing and it has always figured heavily into his approach to music. Finally Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel (hailed as the modern kings of Western Swing) were added, resulting in a sublime album, surefooted in its mastery but still as playful and daring as the originals. Such a fitting collaboration certainly begs the question as to why this hasn't happened already. In 2003 Jerry Wexler, who was retired and living in Florida, called his old friend Ray. "Ray!" Benson recalls, "I'm getting rid of my LPs! They collect dust and it bothers me. I have recorded them all and I am sending you all my Western Swing albums!". I told Jerry thank you very much and how much I appreciated him thinking of me. Well, a few weeks later a box arrived with twenty or so LP's from Jerry. They were collections of the music originally on 78 rpm records reissued on 33 1/3 rpm LPs and although I had a few of them they were a welcome addition to my collection. I noticed that a number of the song titles had two initials next to them: 'WN'. I didn't think much about it but when I talked to Jerry to thank him I asked what they were. He explained that 'WN' stood for Willie Nelson." According to Ray, they asked, "Jerry Wexler thinks now's the time to do the western swing CD. You've got the LPs don't you? It took me a second to realize what they were talking about and once I put two and two together I answered 'Yes of course!' I went to the shelf and pulled out the LP's. Sure enough there were the penned-in WN's by certain songs and so I went to work." From a catalogue of nearly 40 selections Jerry and Ray painstakingly narrowed the list down to twelve. Always the producer with a vision, Jerry was involved in every way. Since then Jerry Wexler has sadly passed away.
Given the amount of collaborations that Willie Nelson and Ray Benson get involved in, their shared home of Texas and their love of that state's Western Swing music, it is extraordinary that this album didn't arrive sooner.
It was the brainchild of R&B producer and closet Western Swing fan, Jerry Wexler. But the project was revived when Ray Benson, leading light of Asleep at the Wheel, noticed the initials WN by certain tracks of Western Swing albums Wexler had given him when he was off-loading some vinyl after he retired.
"What's this WN about?" asks Ray, and Jerry tells him it was a project he'd always wanted to do but never got round to: Willie Nelson singing the music he grew up with. Wexler died in 2008, but Ray took up the torch, ultimately piecing together this end product.
The result of the efforts of Nelson and Benson could be expected to sound just like the wonderful Ride With Bob sessions Ray worked on in 2005, honouring Bob Wills, on which a number of country music stars sang Western Swing standards with Asleep at the Wheel. But Wexler's influence has made itself felt with the inclusion of more horns than The Wheel would usually go for. The one gripe here is that a couple of times these horns tumble over each other, and things get dangerously close to Dixieland
The fiddles and steel are still there though, as is the idiosyncratic use of bar lines and section playing as dictated by that king of Western Swing, Bob Wills, back in the 1940s.
Willie's vocal is, for once, almost on the beat. When a group swings like this he has little alternative. And do they swing. The performances are terrific, and although the songs are from the more obscure end of the Western Swing repertoire, with the exception of Corrine Corrina and Right or Wrong, it's an excellent introduction to this music–a delightful blend of country, swing and jazz. It can sound corny now, but that's only because it established musical clichés that went on to be used by so many other popular genres.
So while Jerry Wexler died a couple of years ago, he can rest easy knowing that Ray and Willie have done him, and Western Swing, proud.
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