In April of 1978, Willie Nelson released Stardust, an album made up of ten of Willie's favorite standards all recorded in just ten days with the help of his neighbor Booker T Jones on arrangements. By 1978 my dad was buying one album a year. To his credit , he purchased Songs In the Key of Life in 1977 and Pink Floyd's The Wall in 1979. But 1978 was the year of Stardust. While attending my boarding school in the 1950's, he played a four string electric guitar in a jazz band that covered some of the same songs Willie chose. Thanks to a TDK cassette and a neighbor with a stereo, my dad passed his love for this album on to me where it remains cherished to his day. And not just by me. It has become a favorite album for generations.
When country singers go back to their roots, the album's usually called Amazing Grace, but Willie Nelson's never been known for his orthodoxy. Instead of hymns, he's giving us ten of the best from popular classicists like George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin. Still, Stardust traces Nelson's musical family tree more convincingly that The Troublemaker, his own white-gospel collection.
In one sense, Stardust is a memory album: "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Georgia on My Mind" and the rest were songs Nelson grew up playing in dives and dance halls across Texas. He and his band haven't reworked them much since then. You can still hear a hint of polka and the clippety-clop of singing cowboys in the bass like of "Blue Skies," and the black-tie-and-champagne bounce of "Someone to Watch Over Me" has been smoothed to a whiskey (straight up) trot. A harmonica does the duty of a horn section, and in between the verses Nelson picks out the melody on his guitar. The notes are as sweet and easy as the smiles of the women eyeing the bandstand over their partners' shoulders.
But Stardust is more than a personal history or testimonial. It's a reminder. The songs Nelson has chosen are a part of Nashville's collective bloodlines too, as much as tent-show evangelism and barroom stomps are. The old standards' precise balance of artifice and sentiment stood as a pattern for the popular song that was never seriously challenged until the eruption of rock and roll. In Nashville, it persisted even then. In "Stardust" or "September Song," as in Nashville's most enduring creations (including many of Nelson's own), resignation, with its implied self-sufficiency, triumphs -- barely -- over whatever agony of emotion is at hand. Tears may slide into the beer, but the singer's dignity is preserved.
For all the sleek sophistication of the material, Stardust is as down-home as the Legion dance. Heard coast to coast in lounges and on elevator soundtracks, these tunes have become part of the folk music of exurban America. And that's the way Nelson plays them -- spare and simple, with a jump band's verve and a storyteller's love of a good tale. By offering these songs, he's displaying the tools of a journeyman musician's trade -- worn smooth and polished by constant use -- and when he lays them out this way, they kind of look like works of art. Willie Nelson may be acknowledging both his own and country music's debt to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, but he's also showing these hallowed musical institutions how the country makes their music its own.
from Tom Moon's 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Some in the Nashville Establishment hooked into Nelson's oddly compelling style early on. It took this album of standards to establish Nelson as a singer with a disarming, logic-defying knack for vocal persuasion.
Produced by organist Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs fame), Stardust catches Nelson in a chilled-out easygoing-grandpa mood. He's singing stuff that he grew up with -- old torch songs ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), tunes he heard Ray Charles sing ("Georgia on My Mind"), and hushed ballads including "Moonlight in Vermont," a marvel of nonrhyming prose imagery that Nelson names in the liner notes as his all-time favorite song. The small band follows his moves at close range, veering between country, soul-ballad tricks, and jazz turnarounds in a way that blurs genres while making perfect musical sense.
One example: On the dramatic ending of "Blue Skies," after he and the band have sauntered through a few bouncy, optimistic choruses, he shifts gears into half time, and then, after a few bars, slows things even further. It's a rallentando that suggests the bittersweet feeling that sometimes descends at the end of a beautiful day. The blue sky is darkening. Dusk is approaching. And Nelson, in a rare turn as Mr. Softie, is wistful, not quite ready to let go of the light just yet.