Let’s put all hero worship aside for a moment and look at things realistically. For serious fans of country, jazz, or both, there’s no overwhelming reason to expect too much out of a collaboration between Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis in 2008. Both men long ago passed the point at which their creative spark was largely swallowed up by their icon status. Much as we may love either of them, you can only make so many children’s-television guest appearances, participate in so many incongruous collaborations, and be the subject of so much overexposure before something important about your art begins to get lost. And in Willie’s case it doesn’t help that the advancing years have clearly begun to tax even his seemingly indefatigable vocal powers.
That’s why it’s all the more surprising that Two Men with the Blues works as well as it does. This could easily have been a sleepwalk at best and a disaster at worst, a calculating cross-promotional marketing plan to nab as much of the country/jazz/pop crossover market as possible with little consideration for the aesthetic results. It could have gone that way, but it didn’t. Against all the aforementioned odds, the outlaw country troubadour and the trad-jazz trumpet king have created a joint musical statement that truly — there’s no other way to say it — swings.
Finding a common musical ground in everything from Jimmy Reed’s blues standard "Bright Lights, Big City" to the Hank Williams chestnut "My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It" and New Orleans staple "Basin Street Blues" (all given an old-school Crescent City jazz/blues treatment), the pair genuinely sound like they’re enjoying batting these old tunes back and forth, investing them with new life and undeniable enthusiasm.
Whether it’s the informal nature of the concert setting in which this album was recorded, the comfortable home-turf feeling both men seem to feel for the material, or just the fact that you can’t stay off the goodfoot when you’re getting down to "Caldonia," Two Men with the Blues confirms that there is indeed life after superstardom.