My Stardust Melody

For the musically literate it’s an old story but one that I never tire of telling. It was the scruffy, outlaw country singer warbling Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins? He wasn’t singer enough to carry it, they all said. And even if by some miracle he did, his label was convinced it would never find an audience, it would never sell. When Booker T. Jones of Stax Records fame signed on as producer, heads were scratched, skeptical eyes rolled northward and virtually everyone had their doubts.

And yet it was a triumph. A crossover record in the very best sense of the word, Stardust is the kind of vocal record that even opera fans adore. What is most startling about its success is how naturally this music came to Jones and Nelson (who were neighbors in Malibu, CA. at the time) and how much they had to say about it. “Stardust” “All of Me” “Moonlight in Vermont” “Unchained Melody”—these were the very choicest nuggets from the Great American Songbook, covered literally hundreds of times and yet here they sounded new and different. A part of this record’s appealing freshness undoubtedly comes from the relaxed tempos and Nelson’s simple, almost offhanded phrasing which somehow manages to be both deadpan and deeply committed in the same moment. Booker T.’s B–3 hovers in the background throughout. Nelson’s single note guitar lines and Mickey Raphael’s harmonica (oh that solo on “Georgia on My Mind”!) are the perfect accents. And while he’d written great songs (”Crazy” for starters), it wasn’t until Stardust that Willie Nelson was considered a truly great singer. Also, Stardust made it clear that while he was a country artist, Nelson had spent considerable time worshipping in the Church of Tin Pan Alley.

It’s been rumored for years, that the master tape for Stardust has somehow been lost, misplaced or that Nelson himself has it squirreled away somewhere. Given the prohibitive costs associated with going back to the session tapes and mixing a new master, word is that some kind of copy of the master has been used for most reissues since its release in 1978. In the audiophile world, it was very successfully reissued three different times by Classic Records—a now very scarce and expensive four LP 45 RPM set and a single 200 gram 331/3 LP (both 1999) and a single 180 gram 331/3 LP (2002). It’s now been reissued, in a very musical and reasonably priced form by the MoFi folks as part of their Silver Label Series ($24.99). Pressed at RTI, this LP sounds full and rich, showing yet again why Nelson’s best–selling album, now gone platinum four times over, stayed on the country charts for a decade and remains an unlikely monument to American popular song.

dalethorn's picture

Willie's treatment of these songs is unique - for someone who either loves his voice or can accomodate his interpretations. But I'd highly recommend taking a walk through his many albums on services like iTunes, to get a better idea of his overall catalog. I downloaded a number of tracks yesterday, and will eventually buy some CD's based on the particular recordings I like best. There's a lot of good material available by Willie Nelson, but the recording styles and quality vary quite a bit.