Written by Fantasma el Rey
The story of country music outlaw “Shotgun” Willie Nelson is fairly well known. He wrote a good number of hit songs for other artists while he was a minor vocal player on the country scene but in the early 1970s he came to the forefront along with other outlaws. Willie and friends changed the way that country music was made, breaking with tradition at times and staying way the hell clear of music trends and fads. They played what they wanted to and what their fans wanted to hear, not what was going to make them a quick buck. With Willie’s Stardust album he did just that: an entire platter’s worth of American pop standards done his way. Contrary to fears and concerns of record execs, the damn thing sold extremely well and still does, as the new two-disc Legacy Edition of the album proves. So put that beer down and mix up a drink as I tell you a little about “crooner” Willie’s Stardust.
Way back in nineteen hundred and seventy-eight, Willie Nelson told his record label, Columbia, about his plan to record an album of pop tunes that he loved by such folks as Berlin, Gershwin, and Ellington. They frowned a bit as they were surely hoping for more in the Red Headed Stranger vein but realized that that is what “artistic creative control” meant, something that Willie had managed to win in his contract a few years prior, so they had to give him the go-ahead. The idea of going the opposite direction from one’s last record wasn’t something new. Look at what Brother Ray Charles did with his country album, yet for good reason it is always seen as a radical move. From a profit point of view, the gamble can be a big one, fans and critics may not react so well and the whole thing could just come out awful. But Willie is a smart man and knew his unique voice would fit well on the proper tunes.
So with his Malibu neighbor, Booker T. Jones (that’s right; the legendary member of the Stax Records’ house band and leader of the MG’s with Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper) set as producer Willie entered the studio and picked out ten tunes that would shine like stars in the night sky for his disc of standards. He brings a wonderful country feel to the songs chosen with quiet guitars, soft bass notes, and a harmonica that adds a cowboy campfire vibe to some of the selections.
Disc one of the set is the original album and nothing on it is as overdone as they could have been, not “Georgia On My Mind,” “Unchained Melody,” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The album is simple and the arrangements make these tunes more approachable, showcasing why Willie’s calm voice is perfect for his dreamy project.
From the start of the title song and opening number on the disc it’s easy to hear why Stardust remains so popular. “Stardust” sets the stage and shines a dim light on the path that Willie is about to take us down. His voice is soft as the drums lightly tap behind him. The guitar evokes the spirit of Django Reinhardt and that harmonica wails its lament of “Paradise where roses grew” and “The memory of love refrained.” Even though “Blue Skies” gets a funky treatment, it keeps in step and gives off the same aura as the rest of the tunes, dominated by the Django strumming and cowboy-harp whispers. The piano seems to know its place as well and adds a quite beauty to the mix.
Willie shows that he can make these ditties jump and swing to boot with such light hoppers as “All Of Me” and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street.” He gets his band to reach back to the days when cowboy jazz (western swing, y’all) filled the airwaves and bands had names like Playboys, Doughboys, and Ramblers.
The sixteen cuts on disc two are cut from the same mold though the songs are pulled from albums that followed Stardust as Willie would continue to sprinkle one or two standards on his albums. The instrumentation widens a tad on some of the tunes but again is never overdone, not too horn- or string-laden, keeping the efforts from coming off too polished. Willie does a masterful job interpreting such top pop hits as “What A Wonderful World,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Mona Lisa,” “That Lucky Old Sun,” and “Stormy Weather.” Willie keeps western swingin’ as well with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” and “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” Both tunes would no doubt put a smile on Bob Wills’ or Gene Autry’s face as they move right along with the rest of the CD and concept of the original Stardust album.
I’ve known of this album for years and had heard a song or two but never paid it too much attention, thinking in my younger days that it was too slow and not for me. Yeah, well I felt that way about Elvis’ Vegas years as well and now I love the hell out of those performances just as I do Stardust and what he set out to do and prove with this million seller and all-around great recording. One more triumph on the long list of great and brilliant accomplishments that have come from the “red headed stranger.”
To help celebrate Willie’s 75th birthday there is also a career-spanning box set titled One Hell Of A Ride that was recently released, a biography Willie Nelson: An Epic Life and let’s not forget all the other CDs that have been remastered and re-released with excellent bonus tracks. So grab that mixed drink and the beer too, what the hell, why not and sit back and enjoy Willie Nelson’s crooning on his swingin’ masterpiece Stardust.