Willie Nelson is country music personified, but he’s no red-headed stranger to the Great American Songbook, either. On “My Way,” the prolific Texan swings and croons through 11 songs associated with Frank Sinatra, with whom he formed an unlikely and undeniable mutual admiration society.
Nelson has been releasing albums at a pace rarely seen these days among major stars, much less 85-year-olds who’ve been on the road forever. “My Way” is his second new recording release this year, after the reflective “Last Man Standing,” and it’s a joy from start to finish.
With “Stardust,” his 1978 smash, Nelson became an early adherent to the now-ubiquitous crossover interpretation of pop standards. And though he’s recorded some of these songs before — including “Fly Me to the Moon” and “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” — the string and horn arrangements led here by Matt Rollings accommodate both Ol’ Blue Eyes’ world and Nelson’s idiosyncratic interpretations.
“Fly Me to the Moon” gains a slightly more spirited pace than on Nelson’s 2009 “American Classic,” and “Summer Wind” includes a lyrical Nelson solo on Trigger — that nylon-string Martin guitar of his with an extra hole resulting from years of use.
The backing really shines on “One for My Baby,” and Nelson’s vocal shows how he is indeed a “kind of poet” even when the song is not his own composition.
Nelson lends a special grace to “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Young at Heart,” while, on “My Way,” his phrasing and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica provide a bluesy intimacy that might make some who don’t care much for Sinatra’s braggadocio and bombast on his own version give the song another chance.