Vinyl Treasures: Willie Nelson

A look back at a classic album that shows the country legend's true artistry.
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A look back at a classic album that shows the country legend's true artistry.
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While watching a Willie Nelson documentary a few years back, I was bowled over when Willie said, “One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever heard in my life was when one of the Little Willies said that I sounded like Django Reinhardt if he had only one finger.”

Well, I was the one who said that, and I was happy Willie understood the compliment—which was based on my fandom for his record Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Released in 1981, Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a collection of standards with an incredible cast of musicians, such as Paul Buskirk, Johnny Gimble, Bob Moore, Freddie Powers, and Dean Reynolds. Some might prefer Red Headed Stranger as the quintessential Willie Nelson record, or the highly acclaimed Stardust that is also a collection of standards. But there is a timeless intimacy to the no-frills production of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Sounding as if Willie and company were recorded in a living room with two microphones, the album is a wonderful example of a live record with soul and spontaneity. You can almost feel the camaraderie and artistry of the musicianship.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow helped me relate to standards as musical poems chronicling life experiences. Before absorbing this record, I mostly viewed standards as exercises in The Real Book with annoying chord substitutions that created hurdles and barriers. But Willie’s crew transformed tracks such as “Mona Lisa,” “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” and “It Wouldn’t Be the Same Without You” into absolute heartbreakers with perfect accompaniment—so perfect I spent years at the turntable figuring out the chords and licks. By doing so, I discovered that Willie and company kept the changes simple (say, C, A7, D7, G7) while the soloists implied the chord substitutions.

For example, the soloist might “think” Ab aug7#9—or simply Ab7—while playing over a dominant movement of G7. Now, I still thought about tritone substitutions and so on, but after hearing Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I wasn’t shackled to them any more. And when I threw the jazz changes out the window, I found I could play music from the heart without too much “string theory.” It was a revelation that playing the melody with personal phrasing choices sounded like “jazz,” so I concluded that the melody notes are the “trees,” and surrounding notes are the “bushes.”

Somewhere Over the Rainbow is a great amalgamation of Django, Les Paul, and country swing played by master musicians—all playing timeless standards curated by the master songwriter, Willie Nelson.

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