The late Jerry Wexler, who passed away last August at age 91, was best known as an advocate and producer for top R&B and soul artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. But Wexler was also a huge fan of country music, dating back to the days the kid who spent his teenage nights in Harlem jazz clubs discovered Western Swing in Kansas City while in college. Credited as executive producer, Wexler's final project was Willie and the Wheel, one of those forehead-smacking pairings that makes you think, "Why didn't they think of this years ago?" Actually they did, but that's another story, and the results are as entertaining and engaging a textbook of pre-rock American music as Nelson's previous collaboration, last year's Wynton Marsalis team-up Two Men with the Blues. From the jaunty Dixieland stroll of opener "Hesitation Blues" through flawlessly executed Bob Wills standards "Right or Wrong" and "Corrine, Corrina," Nelson is obviously in his element and having a ball. But it's hardly a solo project: Wheel leader Ray Benson makes a droll sidekick; the instrumentalists — including guests Vince Gill and Paul Shaffer on "South" — are in top form across the board; and Elizabeth McQueen's sly, sassy answer vocals on "Sittin' on Top of the World" upstage the Red Headed Stranger a little. Jerry Wexler was an atheist, but even he knew Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel would be a match made in heaven — and he was right.
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