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A double-shot of Willie Nelson on a Wednesday

January 21, 2009 |  6:26 pm

Hey, so we heard that there was some hullabaloo going on at the White House the other day! Well, it seems like as good a time as any to check in with a singer who allegedly brought his own breed of hope and change to the presidential manor a few decades ago. Willie Nelson's got a new collaborative album coming out, alongside a tribute record of covers from one of the better beardy-folk dudes going today, Phosporescent.

"Willie and the Wheel," out Feb. 3, is a collaboration with the longtime western swing band Asleep at the Wheel, and coincidentally, the last project from executive producer Jerry Wexler. It's a pretty enjoyable if orthodox take on the Wheel's cowboy big-band music that still keep's Willie's weary bleat, which is well used to this kind of setting, way out in front. He's tried on all sorts of genres lately and this one's a natural fit. Cuts like the horn-heavy "Bring It on Down to My House" and "Sweet Jennie Lee" are the most upbeat and easygoing tunes he's done in years.

But just as intriguing is "To Willie," a harmony-heavy album of covers to be released the same day from Matthew Houck, who records his amber-hued indie folk under the name Phosphorescent. It's inspired by Nelson's Lefty Frizzell tribute, "To Lefty From Willie," and puts a woozy, homespun gloss on some of Nelson's best bummed-out numbers. "Reasons to Quit" and "Too Sick to Pray" get gentle, morning-after headache arrangements, while "I Gotta Get Drunk" puts Houck right back where he started; namely, under the bar. The high point is the gospel-rich "Can I Sleep in Your Arms," a fraught but shimmering little number built almost wholly on stacked voices and Houck's late-night laments muttered straight into the bottom of a bottle.

-- August Brown

Willie Nelson photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images; Phosphorescent photo by Amanda Yates