The Joup Friday Album: Willie Nelson – Stardust

Willie-Nelson-StardustIn 1978, there was no bigger band than the Bee Gees. The Brothers Gibb dominated the charts with disco hits such as “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever,” and also contributed amazing songs such as “How Deep Is Your Love,” while Brother Andy charted with “(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing.” It was also the year that saw John Travolta’s astronomical rise to stardom with lead roles in “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease,” which spawned the hit single “You’re the One that I Want.” Even the Stones had a hard time catching up to the cultural zeitgeist; “Miss You,” their only real hit in ’78, spent just one week at the top of the Billboard heap.

But disco wasn’t the only thing happening in 1978. It was the year that Willie Nelson released “Stardust,” an LP of 10 pop standards, including “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Unchained Melody” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It couldn’t have been any more different than what was happening on the “pop” charts, but here we are, 37 years later, and Nelson’s album was just certified quintuple platinum. It spent an incredible 10 years on the charts, and bridged jazz, country, and pop. It has always been in print, and was reissued in both 1999 (Columbia, with two bonus tracks — “Scarlet Ribbons” and “I Can See Clearly Now”) and 2008 (30th anniversary, Sony, with a secondary album featuring 16 other standards culled from Nelson’s various other albums). The fact is, that while the Bee Gees’ music holds up, Nelson’s music is timeless, like stardust itself.

“Stardust” is a subtle album, reflective and gentle. Everything is restrained, and the album breathes. Nelson’s talent as an interpreter of song is at its finest, his delivery assured and nuanced. The instrumentation is varied, lush and sparse at the same time. While much of it definitely is “country,” it transcends the genre on songs like “September Song,” with its quiet organ and brushes on the drums, and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” which he takes in a decidedly jazzy direction while still keeping a Texas twinge. Nelson took nine days to record these songs, with the assistance of Booker T. Jones. Nelson’s label at the time, Columbia, was skeptical about releasing an album of standards from a “country outlaw,” but being an outlaw was always about more than a certain look or sound — it was about doing the unexpected, the unconventional. For Nelson, nothing could have been more “outlaw” than releasing what really amounts to supper-club music and making it relevant in the era of sequins, cocaine and nightclubs. It’s even more astonishing when you consider that the burgeoning punk scene in New York and London was about to forever change popular music.

Nelson isn’t the first singer/songwriter to record standards; he won’t be the last. It’s a common thing for singers to do once they get to a certain level — a bridge album that allows them to put out “new” material in between original releases. But whereas a lot of standard albums from other artists feel calculated, this doesn’t. This feels like what you’d hear Nelson doing in his backyard, or during concerts. These songs belong to him as much as they do to anyone.

Tagging Shawn C. Baker.

 

Sara Farr

Sara Farr

Sara Farr is currently an adjunct marketing instructor at the School of Advertising Art. Previously, she worked as a graphic designer at Variety for six years, and spent 10 years before that as a music writer for various Midwestern and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. Her work appears in “The Little Black Book, Music: Over a Century of the Greatest Artists, Albums, Songs, Performances and Events That Rocked the Music World.”

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