A towering icon with nothing left to prove, Willie Nelson spends much of his time these days revisiting his back pages, reworking beloved old songs in new idioms and collaborating with whoever the hell he feels like, whether it’s Wynton Marsalis or Asleep At The Wheel. Now Nelson has hooked up with legendary jazz label Blue Note for the appealingly understated American Classic, another Stardust-like ramble through the American songbook. As his voice devolves evermore into a raspy croak, Nelson has learned to work with and around his limitations: His inimitable croon is as comforting and familiar as a worn-out pair of leather cowboy boots, and his skills as an interpreter of standards remains sharp.
On the beauty-and-the-beast duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” the album’s standout track, the smoky glamour of guest vocalist Norah Jones perfectly complements Nelson’s casual delivery, which hovers comfortably between talking and singing. Elsewhere, Nelson delivers a sly, naughty-but-nice take on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and re-imagines “Always On My Mind” as upscale piano-bar fodder. Where 1978’s seminal Stardust was a major statement about the timeless power of a great song, the self-consciously minor American Classic is more of a breezy, diverting aside.