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Stardust
Willie Nelson

Columbia 35305
Released: April 1978
Chart Peak: #30
Weeks Charted: 117
Certified 3x Platinum: 10/19/84

Willie NelsonWhen 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.

Willie Nelson - Stardust
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
Stardust is also Nelson's tribute to his teachers -- as a songwriter, he learned a lot from these guys. Like how to open a song with a rush and a phrase that lands you in the middle of the situation: "All of me..." and "Hello, walls...." Or how to cover the two-by-fours of verse/verse/bridge with a seamless melody that glides over all the joints and angles. Willie Nelson, singer, learned his offbeat phrasing from urbane songs like these, where it still shows off best. Refusing to be hurried by the band, he strolls through "All of Me" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," as wry and debonair as the lyrics.

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 & 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.

- Ariel Swartley, Rolling Stone, 6/29/78.

Bonus Reviews!

Unusual pairing of artist and producer here as Booker T. Jones was the prime mover in Booker T & the MGs a few years back. But the combination works well for Nelson who has been scoring huge successes both with Waylon Jennings and as a solo artist. He puts his distinctive, soft vocal style to good use interpreting a number of standards as well as country-flavored tunes. All of the material seems well suited to his easygoing style as Nelson backs himself with guitar and gets help with guitar, drums, keyboards, bass and harmonica. Best cuts: "Stardust," "Georgia On My Mind," "Unchained Melody," "September Song," "Moonlight In Vermont."

- Billboard, 1978.

I can always do without "Unchained Melody," and at times I wish he'd pick up the tempo. Basically, though, I'm real happy this record exists, not just because Nelson can be a great interpretive singer -- his "Moonlight in Vermont" is a revelation -- but because he's provided me with eleven great popular songs that I've never had much emotional access to. Standards that deserve the name -- felt, deliberate, schmaltz-free. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The record label didn't want Nelson to do this project, inspired partially by the death of pop crooner Bing Crosby. Standard material -- "Moonlight in Vermont," "All of Me," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" -- is arranged by Booker T. Jones (of "Green Onions" fame) and recorded in Nelson's inimitable style in Emmylou Harris's house.

- Tom Roland, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

On this legendary departure from the traditional Willie, America's pop troubadour puts his one-of-a-kind touch on old pop standards, finding common ground between outlaw country and mellow, classic stuff by Berlin, Carmichael, Gershwin and Ellington. Sweet and simple, more bow tie than bandana, each song is turned and twisted until it's his own and, paired with the production talents of Booker T. Jones, sets a romantic mood that appeals to a whole new audience. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Stardust is Nelson's love song to old-time American music: At the height of his country popularity, the crooner digs up his favorite Tin Pan Alley standards -- "Georgia on My Mind," "Unchained Melody," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" -- and makes them swing as if he had just come up with them in his La-Z-Boy.

Stardust was chosen as the 257th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Having popularized the concept of Outlaw country, Willie Nelson released a collection of pop standards, even though he is quite the songwriter himself, composing some of Nashville's most personal songs, like "Hello Walls," "Crazy," and "Night Life."

Largely re-assembling the winning team behind his break-through Red Headed Stranger album, Nelson set out to recreate the sounds of his youth and the songs he'd grown up with listening to on the radio, addressing the music of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins among others. With the crucial input of producer Booker T. Jones (of MGs repute), Nelson moved from pop to folk, from jazz to country, exploring the breadth of American music. Nelson rediscovered the wealth his roots had to offer and was unafraid to re-present it in all its hues.

Initial label misgivings were soon replaced by acclaim as Nelson scooped Entertainer of the Year awards from both the CMA and the ACM. Repeating his 1975 success, Nelson also took a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance for his reading of Carmichael's "Georgia On My Mind." Now well into his forties, Nelson was enjoying the most successful period of his career. That this was achieved with a covers album makes the feat even more extraordinary.

As of 2004, Stardust was the #41 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

After the success of 1975's quietly iconoclastic The Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson's bosses at Columbia Records were probably inclined to let him try just about anything. Still, the concept of Stardust must have made them nervous -- why would the honky-tonker release a lavishly produced collection of Tin Pan Alley standards?

But if Red Headed Stranger confirmed that Nelson was one of the great country artists of his day, Stardust sealed his reputation as one of the best and most distinctive American singers of any day. Often imitated, even mocked, but seldom matched, Nelson's singing was already rather more jazzy than that of his colleagues in Nashville, and Stardust let him take on the idiom of jazz singing directly. On the title cut, Nelson sings sometimes a little ahead, sometimes well behind the beat, and plucks notes seemingly from nowhere.

Nelson broke new commercial ground with Stardust, which stayed on the U.S. Billboard album chart for two years and, improbably enough, with tunes by pop songsters like Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Berlin on the country charts. If The Red Headed Stranger made Nelson a country legend, Stardust made him a household name. A movie career followed, as well as more country hits, and Nelson later continued his genre experiments with forays into blues and gospel. But a quarter century later, Nelson was still interpreting and reinterpreting tunes from Stardust at his concerts, which affirms that with Willie Nelson, there is no country or pop, just Willie Nelson songs.

- Kenneth Burns, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Willie Nelson is one great fake-out artist. A few minutes with that craggy voice on the stereo, and the logical conclusion is that he's not much of a singer. And then a few more minutes go by, and you're captivated -- this grizzled dude knows how to get his voice into a zone where his intentions can't be misread, where the warts and the flaws work for him. He sings through what would be deal-breaking disadvantages for others; you follow along in part because you wanna see if the old coot can make it.

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.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

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