Willie Nelson was one of the biggest artists in country music in the mid-1970s. Red Headed Stranger and Wanted! The Outlaws had solidified his place as a genre superstar, selling at previously unheard of volumes. He also had complete creative control over his music; with Columbia Records allowing him to make whatever records he wanted.
Nelson had been mulling over the idea of making a standards album for a while, even trying to arrange “Stardust” on guitar from sheet music he and his sister Bobbie had, to no avail. By 1977 he was living in the same Malibu, CA Neighborhood as R&B/Soul Musician Booker T. Jones. They became such good friends that Nelson asked Jones to arrange a version of the standard “Moonlight In Vermont” for him. He was so pleased by the results, he asked Jones to produce an entire album of pop standards for him. The pair went into the studio and recorded the project in just nine days early that December.
The resulting album, Stardust, initially had the executives at Columbia Records nervous. A fusion of pop, jazz, folk, and country, the sonic direction of the project bared little resemblance to Nelson’s previous ‘outlaw’ album and thus they feared it wouldn’t sell. The label went forward anyways, releasing the ten-song collection in April 1978.
The label chose Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind” (a hit for Ray Charles in 1960) as the lead single. The song, despite a slow and prodding acoustic guitar-led arrangement, shot to #1 on the country chart. Nelson, who won the 1979 Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy for the track, gives a tender and endearing vocal on the recording.
Second single “Blue Skies” followed suit. Jones was smart, giving Nelson a more muscular arrangement to complement his somewhat free flowing vocal. Third and final single “All of Me,” easily the best and peppiest of the album’s singles, peaked at #3.
“Moonlight In Vermont,” the track that started it all, is a very slow jazzy/folk ballad that Nelson sings well. “Stardust” isn’t any livelier although the ethereal aspects of the production give it a gorgeously pleasant quality that nicely frames Nelson’s voice.
The Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me” is aided by a distinctive melody that allows Nelson to give a more structured vocal performance. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is just as good, showing off Nelson’s interpretation skills as a jazz vocalist, with a nice upright bass and harmonica heavy production that suits the song well. “Unchained Melody” could’ve used a little more cadence in the production, allowing Nelson to give a more rhythmic vocal but he gives a nice effort, working with Jones’ arrangement.
“On The Sunny Side of the Street” gives Nelson a nice opportunity to step outside his musical comfort zone and embrace a finger snappin’ jazz style that actually works for his voice and overall persona. “September Song,” meanwhile, is nothing more than a deliberate pop/jazz ballad, although Nelson sings it very well (It peaked at #15 in 1979). The reissue edition includes two more songs – a beautiful folkish take on “Scarlet Ribbons” and a straight up jazz rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now.” Both are very good and compliment the original album very well.
The execs at Columbia had a reason to be scared, as Stardust has a very unapologetic sound. Thankfully their nervousness was quickly put to rest. The album went platinum upon release and spent 540 weeks, ten years, on the top country albums chart and two years in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. Stardust went quintuple (5 million) platinum in 2002 and Nelson performed the entire album live – start to finish – at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles this past August to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary.
Stardust is nothing short of a classic and one of the greatest country albums of all time. I wish I could say it appeals more to my taste, but Jones’ production is too slow and sleepy for me to fully enjoy it. The project could’ve used some more uptempo numbers to even out the heaviness, and I probably would’ve enjoyed it more. But I can still appreciate the project for what it is, and there are some moments of brilliance here from Nelson.
Personal Grade: C+ (I wish I could enjoy it more – it’s too slow and prodding for me)
On it’s own merit: A (I can fully see why it’s such an amazing album, and Nelson is brilliant here)