What is it they say? A good song is a good song no matter what? The Gershwins wrote some of the best songs, but I have to admit – I have heard these songs so many ties, forwards and backwards that it would take a lot for me to hear them like I am hearing them for the first time. Willie Nelson achieves that in his album “Summertime: Willie Nelson sings Gershwin.” Perhaps it’s Nelson’s gravelly voice, but these songs sound heavier and more meaningful. He seems to be in his element here, and while his voice isn’t what it used to be (whose is?) you can feel his affinity for the material, and it’s infectious. The arrangements by Matt Rollings help. The style is honky tonk, but it’s more produced, and there’s a sheen to the sound.
This is not Nelson’s first foray into singing songs from the Great American Songbook. His 1978 album ‘Stardust’ was a big seller. Perhaps Nelson was inspired from receiving the prestigious Gershwin Prize for Popular Song which was bestowed to him by the Library of Congress last year that he decided to record these Gershwin classics, but I am glad he did.
There’s nothing showy in his delivery of the songs, and there needn’t be. These songs stand on their own. Listen to his plaintive “But Not For Me.” He does nothing big to it, but its bareness heightens its melancholy. And the guitar riffs in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” give it a rawness that emphasizes the lyrics. And he can have fun, too, awith Cyndi Lauper in “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” a fun track. On another duet “Embraceable You,” this time with Sheryl Crow he is more sedate, and the track is serviceable but not extraordinary. Close your eyes on the title track “Summertime” and the message is as poignant as if you were hearing a soprano singing it as an aura. This album is a major achievement in popular music.