The lead single from Willie Nelson’s forthcoming Western Swing collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel (titled Willie and the Wheel, natch) offers lots of reasons to expect that the album’s February 3rd release will signal a great day for music fans. “Hesitation Blues” is an old blues standard which has been knocked around by everyone from Jelly Roll Morton to Janis Joplin to Doc Watson to modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show, but Nelson & Co. manage to bring an unusual rightness to their take, honoring the song’s traditions while still making an effort to mix things up in a way that feels organic rather than calculated.
Of course, it helps that one of the song’s traditions is to mix things up. You’d be hard-pressed to find two renditions of “Hesitation Blues” that actually have a great deal in common since, as with many standards popularized in the early 1900’s, it has undergone multiple transformations of title (the most notable variation being Charlie Poole’s “If the River Was Whiskey”), arrangement, and, perhaps most importantly, lyrics. Indeed, the only line that seems constant throughout the multiple renditions is the hook, “Tell me how long / Do I have to wait / Can I get you now / Must I hesitate,” and even that one has been subject to minor rephrasing.
Given this across-the-map pedigree, you could almost say it’s become the de facto duty of anyone looking to cover “Hesitation Blues” to retool its sound and lyrics in a fashion both original and still coherent with the old-time novelty setting. And it’s Willie ‘n’ Wheel’s success at managing that balance that makes this recording probably one of the song’s most memorable treatments ever – by anyone.
High praise there, to be sure. But the uptempo riverboat-swing arrangement here is perfectly suited to the melody, the instrumentation is faultless, and the cheerier pace is matched ideally with goofy lyrical recounts like, “Woke up this morning / Lookin’ for my shoes” and “Saw your little monkey / Doin’ the sweet jelly roll” (a possible shout-out to Morton). If anything, the execution might seem a little too effortless to be completely riveting – but how refreshing is it to have your biggest problem with a record be that it sounds too polished, too well-studied and thought-out?
Safe or no, this is a boogie-worthy romp that sounds so classic that you might have trouble believing it was actually recorded this decade. I’ve always felt that you can’t get a full picture of an artist’s talents without seeing how well they handle time-honored material, and make no mistake: the folks behind this particular curtain are full-blown masters.
Listen (MySpace): Hesitation Blues
Nice review, Dan. I’m looking forward to the album.