Willie Nelson has never been one for following the rules of the tribe. He is, after all, the self-proclaimed outlaw of country music.
Just look over the last few years of his career for the proof in that pudding. Where to start? Maybe with the IRS controversy in 1990 that almost caused him to lose his shirt. Or perhaps his ever-increasing status as the most prolific pot smoker in American pop (sorry, Snoop)—I’ve actually known people who’ve partaken in some of Willie’s “Mother Nature” and say it makes even the dankest Cannabis Cup championship bud seem like the most ghetto dimebag swag. Then you have his complete and total curtailment of foreign oil through the exclusive use of biodeisel to fuel his touring convoy, which he has since transformed into a cottage industry via his BioWillie brand of biodiesel fuel, thus bringing a new sense of worth to the ailing status of the American farmer.
It’s a plight that would, in turn, lead to Farm Aid, the long-running music festival he founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp that remains a tall leap above just about every flavor-of-the-month American hipster fest from Bonnarroo to Bumbershoot. And, of course, there is his recent controversial interview with fellow Texas firestarter and controversial radio talk show host Alex Jones, where he spoke to the fears of conspiracy theorists the world over by admitting to the belief that 9/11 was, in fact, “an inside job”, comparing the falling of the Twin Towers to an implosion he had seen in Las Vegas. Even at 75 years of age, Willie keeps on pushing the buttons that keep his status as the quintessential “American outlaw” fervently intact.
However, while Willie certainly has a history of making waves on the socio-political front, his music remains the anchor by which the best change is minimal. Though he has certainly collaborated with plenty of artists in a variety of settings, you never heard of Willie Nelson straying far enough from his signature style that you can’t tell that it’s Willie Nelson. In fact, due to the unique tone of his golden voice, experiments with different sounds, in turn, become Willie’s own, regardless of who he’s working with and what direction they are going together, be it doing the dark-hued, Time Out of Mind thing with Daniel Lanois, mimicking Tom Waits with Kenny Chesney or playing the blues alongside jazz master Wynton Marsalis, as he has done on their excellent new duets album, Two Men With The Blues, on the Blue Note label.
It’s not as though he all of a sudden got the urge to create a synthesizer album or plug a pedal steel through a Big Muff distortion pedal and create a countrified version of Metal Machine Music. Yet in 1978, on or around the time when he so infamously sparked a doobie on the White House roof during the Jimmy Carter administation, the notion of Willie Nelson, country music icon, recording an album of standards from the Great American Songbook was rendered as radical as if he copped a squat down on the Bowery and cut an album with Television. Well, at least from the reaction of the stiffs on Nashville’s music row, who perceived Willie’s idea to record timeless numbers by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Duke Ellington to be an odd idea, and with Memphis soul legend Booker T. Jones producing, no less. Luckily for Nelson, whose contract with Columbia Nashville had guaranteed him creative control, he could have given two shits about what those “control freaks” on Music Row thought, and the result was Stardust, perhaps the most beloved album in the entire Willie catalog.
With Booker T.—whose work with his house band, the MGs, helped shape the sound of so many classic albums on the Stax label in the ‘60s and ‘70s—at the boards, Willie’s take on the Great American Songbook gets just the right balance of twangy nuance and searching soul that sheds a light on these timeless classics better than any maudlin, string-soaked rendition ever could. The most beautiful of which being the Carmichael selections, including the silky-soft spin on the 1927 title track, which pares down Hoagy’s ballroom standard to its simplest sentiments and 1930’s “Georgia on My Mind”, which figures closer to the Ray Charles version than the original. Coincidentally, both of these songs are revisited on the Marsalis album as well. Irving Berlin’s 1931 pop-jazz stunner “All of Me” also feels like a perfect fit for Nelson’s warm ramble, as does Ted Lewis’ Depression-era anthem “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and Margaret Whiting’s 1945 slow dancer “Moonlight in Vermont”. And if Willie’s reading of the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you are one cold, cold bastard.
This Legacy edition of Stardust, released in conjunction with the seminal Sony-based reissue label’s ongoing celebration of Nelson’s 75th birthday as well as the album’s own 30th anniversary, contains a great bonus disc that expands the Stardust medium by collecting 16 more interpretations of the Great American Songbook Willie had scattered across a variety of albums from 1976 to 1984. Included here are Nelson’s takes on “What a Wonderful World” from his 1988 album of the same name, great renditions of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “Mona Lisa” from his 1981 jazz album Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the 1943 WWII hit “You’ll Never Know” off his second collaborative album with Booker T., 1983’s Without a Song. Also on this edition are crucial covers of “Tenderly”, “Stormy Monday” and a stark, gorgeous version of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” from his 1979 album with Leon Russell One for the Road, which deserves a long-overdue Legacy edition in its own right.
Sure, the rabid nest of vipers that is the Right Wing Conservative media may have painted Willie Nelson as a weed-smoking, conspiracy-theorizing, farmer-sympathizing crazy old man whose tour bus smells like Freedom fries in their on-air diatribes. But you know damn well that somewhere in their secret stash of old record albums they have tucked away in the basements of their McMansion estates is a well-worn copy of Stardust.