Willie Nelson | Stardust (Sony BMG Legacy)

cd_willie-nelson.jpgThe songs on Stardust come from what is often referred to as "The Great American Songbook:" popular songs from the pre-rock era which have successfully transcended the context of their origins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone knows that the music business is a business, and market segmentation is an oft-used tool in the quest to sell more music to more people. More than the market gets segmented, however; performers and the music they produce are often thrust, none too comfortably, into pigeonholes like "country" or "jazz" or "pop." Business is business, as they say, and a lot of people make their living within those categories.

But often the most interesting music is produced when an artist refuses to stay within its designated niche. One such example is Stardust, Willie Nelson’s 1978 album of standards which went to #1 on the Billboard Country Chart, and spent 551 weeks on the Country Chart and 117 on the Pop Chart. It’s also Nelson’s best-selling album (and this is a man with 24 gold, 17 platinum and eight multi-platinum albums to his credit). I’d call that a success.

The songs on Stardust come from what is often referred to as "The Great American Songbook:" popular songs from the pre-rock era which have successfully transcended the context of their origins (generally Tin Pan Alley, Broadway or Hollywood) and have become part of our common heritage of music (hence the designation of such songs as "standards" in the jazz world).

Case in point: nearly everyone knows the song "Georgia on My Mind" even if they don’t know it was written in 1930 by Hoagie Carmichael and Stuart Gorell: Ray Charles’ performance was the highlight of the Atlanta Olympics for me. Similarly, you may not realize that Irving Berlin wrote "Blue Skies" for the long-forgotten musical Betsy, but chances are you’ve heard it somewhere: it was featured in several recent films and has been recorded by everyone from Count Basie to Rod Stewart. Nelson performs both songs exquisitely on Stardust, and spin-off singles of both went to #1 on the Country Charts.

This is one album Willie Nelson was born to record. He was never an entirely conventional country singer, and Stardust gave him the opportunity to demonstrate his clean vocal style and mastery of back-phrasing, common in jazz but not part of the mainstream country tradition. He also had the wisdom to bring in Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG’s, best known for their instrumental hit "Green Onions") to play keyboards and produce the album. The other instrumentalists are Nelson regulars, including Jody Payne, Bobbie Nelson, Bee Spears and Paul English.

Stardust: Legacy Edition is a double-CD set released by Sony BMG Legacy on the 30th anniversary of the original album’s release. The first CD contains the 10 recordings of the original album, and the second contains 16 songs in the same vein which were originally released on other albums. Every track on the original CD is a gem, from the jaunty "All of Me" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" to the more contemplative "Moonlight in Vermont" and "September Song." The songs on the second CD are more of a mixed bag; originally released over the years 1976-1990, the performances are much more heterogeneous and not always as successful, but they make an interesting complement to the 1978 album.

When asked why he wanted to record this album in the midst of his Outlaw years (not to mention disco, new wave and punk), Nelson is said to have responded "Why be predictable?" We can all be grateful that he wasn’t then and isn’t now. | Sarah Boslaugh

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