On this day 44 years ago, Willie Nelson–who recently sang a heartstring-tugging duet with Tami Neilson–released “Stardust,” a collection of mid-century hits done in a traditional country music-bluegrass style. He took influences from jazz, pop, and folk for this album, and covered songs from big names like Hoagy Carmichael, George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Nat King Cole. Nelson has continued to be no stranger to covers; on his upcoming album, he covers Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” In 1978, though, coming off the success of 1975’s “Red Headed Stranger,” “Stardust” seemed like an interesting next move at the time. Yet, it’s considered one of Willie Nelson’s essential albums.
According to The Boot, Nelson turned to an unlikely source to make this album: his neighbor in Malibu. Of course, this neighbor just so happened to be Booker T. Jones, who first rose to fame with the jazz/soul group Booker T. and the MGs. Jones put together an arrangement of the song “Moonlight in Vermont” for Nelson, who liked it so much he decided to do a full-on collaboration.
Willie Nelson wrote of the experience in his 2015 book “It’s a Long Story: My Life.” He wrote, “For all our differences, Booker and I were linked by our love of the blues in general, and our love of Ray Charles in particular. When I had just the slightest hesitation about singing “Georgia on My Mind,” a song so closely associated with Ray, Booker encouraged me. ‘Ray did it his way,’ he said, ‘and you’ll do it yours. None of these songs belong to any particular singer. They belong to the world.'”
The Old-Timey Magic of Willie Nelson’s ‘Stardust’
“These songs belong to the world”: such a powerful notion, and a correct one as well. These are songs that have outlived their singers, but that take on new life in every generation. That’s the transformative power of the public domain.
Taking these songs and arranging them in his own style was the best decision Willie Nelson ever made. Okay, maybe not the best but it’s definitely up there. The album is simply a joy to listen to; dulcet tones, velvet guitar, Nelson’s signature country vocals, the harmonica. It’s the perfect romantic dinner music, the perfect candlelight-and-spaghetti-and-good-wine soundtrack. To put it in plain terms: “Stardust” makes me happy. What also makes me happy: Vinyl Me, Please’s collection of Willie Nelson’s 60-year music career all on vinyl.
Willie Nelson nailed it with this album. According to Nelson, he worked on the album for a week, but “I never felt rushed. I had lots of space to maneuver and calmly meditate on the meaning of these timeless songs, I had lots of time to caress the melodies in my own way. I had the freedom to let my guitar say what needed to be said.”
“Red Headed Stranger” was an album with a narrative, that told stories. “Stardust” existed just to exist, to bring joy and spark new life into old songs. It’s a narrative in itself, and the narrative is that life can be romantically simple and easy if you want it to be.