Willie Nelson is no stranger — red-headed or otherwise — to high-profi le collaborations. The country music icon formed the original Outlaws with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, and the Highwaymen
Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
Now he’s joined forces with a couple of other country legends —
Merle Haggard and Ray Price — for “Last of the Breed,” a two-CD set of favorite songs and a couple of originals that came out this week and has sent the trio on a short tour that hits town tonight at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.
“Ray and I and Merle have been wanting to work together for a long time,” says the Texas-born Nelson, 73, who used to play bass in Price’s band and had platinum success with Haggard on 1983’s “Pancho & Lefty” album. He calls “Last of the Breed” “very much like the Highwaymen — some individual personalities and we get together and make it happen.
“That’s what the challenge is; we’re all independent in our own ways, and it’s a matter of give and take. That’s the fun of it, because we all know each other and how to work together. If we didn’t want it to happen, it wouldn’t.”
Haggard gives Nelson full credit for both instigating and organizing the project last October.
“Willie just said, ‘Ray needs to make some money and we need to make an album with him,’ ” recalls Haggard, 69, who still resides in his native California. “Willie picked all the songs we were gonna do with the exception of a couple of things I wanted to do. We just kind of rolled in there and did it.”
Nelson, however, says there was a little more collaboration involved in the process, however.
“We all got together and decided on some songs we all knew and liked,” he explains. “We really just did a lot of our favorites from Lefty Frizell, Bob Wills — songs we’ve all been singing all our lives, along with a couple of new ones.” Those include Nelson’s “Back to Earth” — “Just one of those good songs that every now and then you wake up an write.” — and Haggard’s “Sweet Jesus.”
The sessions took place last October in Nashville with producer Fred Foster, who also worked on Nelson’s Grammynominated 2006 tribute “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker.” The trio was joined by several guests — including Kristofferson, Vince Gill, the Jordanaires vocal group and ace Music City musicians such as Johnny Gimble and Buddy Emmons — but the real focus was kept on blending the voices of the three men making the album.
And that, Haggard says, was relatively effortless.
“I walked in from the bus and Ray and Willie were in this booth, and they had the three mikes there, ready to go,” he says. “They were recording ‘Pick Me Up on Your Way Down.’ It was already in progress when I walked in, and I did my part in less than 30 minutes.
“Everything went that way. It was a real pleasure to do.”
The three men — who share a passion for poker while on the road — hope to keep doing “Last of the Breed” in the future, too. Their individual projects continue, including Nelson’s new Pedernales Records label and a couple of albums Haggard has lined up, including his first-ever bluegrass album, “Runaway Mama,” and a compilation for the Cracker Barrel chain.
But they say they’d like to see “Last of the Breed” become an umbrella they can work under whenever the opportunity presents itself.
“I would hope we could do some more touring together, and more albums,” Nelson says. “The Highwaymen did three albums and a couple of tours. All that would be great with me.”
Haggard adds that, “It’s selling tickets and everything, that’s the main thing. And we are sort of the last of the bunch; with George Jones, the four of us are probably what’s left of the (old guard), y’know? So it’s good if we get out there and show this (music) to the people.”
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price with Asleep at the Wheel perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday (March 23rd) at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $32.50-$59.50. Call (313-471-6611 or visit www.olympia entertainment.com.
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