Recording of March 2018: Stardust

Willie Nelson: Stardust
Columbia/Analogue Productions AAPP 116-45 (2 45rpm LPs). 1978/2017. Booker T. Jones, prod.; Donivan Cowart, Bradley Hartman, engs.; Bernie Grundman, mastering. AAA. TT: 43:28
Performance *****
Sonics *****

In Nashville in the early 1960s, Willie Nelson hit his low point. He'd failed at singing and writing country music, and one snowy night, after a liberal drowning of his troubles at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, he decided to totter outside and lie down in the middle of Lower Broadway. In subsequent retellings of the tale, he's always maintained that he wasn't trying to kill himself. For that, he had a pistol.

Soon after surviving this communion with the holy asphalt, Nelson's career took off. By the mid-'70s he was one of the leaders—along with Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and others—of what was called country music's "Outlaw Movement." Stripping away the rhinestones and overproduced sound of mainstream Nashville, the outlaws favored leaner, stripped-down arrangements that incorporated some of the energy and instrumentation of rock. A 1976 album, Wanted! The Outlaws —featuring Nelson, Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser—became the touchstone for the movement and went platinum. Suddenly, recording oceans of strings behind songs written by Music Row "professionals" was passé.

But unlike his compadres, Nelson had another revolutionary move up his sleeve, one that would forever shatter the boundaries of what country music could be. It also illustrated how interconnected country music is not only with the blues, but with that other essential well of American musical achievement: the songs, now known as standards, that came from the Broadway stage and Tin Pan Alley. As Nelson later put it, "These are my favorite songs. My favorite all-time songs."

The making of Stardust began in the unlikely environs of Malibu, California, where Nelson and Booker T. Jones, of Stax Records fame, were neighbors. When the red-headed stranger asked Jones to arrange a version of "Moonlight in Vermont," Jones did such a memorable job that Nelson decided to cut an entire album of standards, and asked Jones to produce it. Recorded in 10 days, with the Enactron truck parked in the driveway of the Beverly Hills home of Brian Ahern and Emmylou Harris, the results were at first resisted by the risk-averse suits at Columbia Records—a sign that often bodes well for a project's chances of success.

Titled after its opening track, Hoagy Carmichael's almighty ballad, Stardust became a monster hit, reaching No.30 in Billboard's Top 200 chart, No.1 in Top Country Albums, and winning Nelson a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal performance, for "Georgia On My Mind." By early in this century, Stardust had been certified quintuple platinum: 5 million units sold. Now this set of landmark recordings has been remastered from the original master tapes, and recut for release on two 45rpm LPs by Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions label. The sonic improvement is major.

Booker T. Jones may have remembered the sessions best in his liner note for a 1999 reissue on CD for Columbia/Legacy's American Milestones series: "How had our heritages, our lifestyles, matched in such a way that could come to this? Blues, jazz, country what was it? We didn't know. We didn't care, none of the band members, or crew, cared. We just played. And we had a good time."

The approach was simple and effective. The first ingredient was spare backing from Nelson's band, a road-tested unit that included Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Jody Payne on guitar, sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, drummer Paul English (of "Me and Paul" fame), and, of course, Booker T. on organ and piano.

Then there were Nelson's bravura, ruminative vocal performances. At leisurely tempos, he showed infallible instincts for phrasing on or around the beat, wending his affectionate way through "All of Me" and "Unchained Melody," somehow making them elegant and sophisticated yet approachably down-home, all in the same moment. What was most surprising was how new Nelson made these well-worn classics sound. His agile performance, bristly voice, and love of storytelling combine for just the right amounts of pathos and nostalgia in the aching plea of Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill's timeless "September Song," in which Raphael's harmonica takes the place of a solo horn or fiddle. This is a vocal record that even opera lovers treasure. While Nelson's idiosyncratic phrasing of his own material always had offhand charm, these were unexpected vocal knockouts from a shaggy source.

But after Nelson's genius in conceiving the idea, the true stars of Stardust are the songs—love songs, mostly, by the likes of Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins, that make this a greatest-hits set of mostly pre-war 20th-century America. Too sentimental, perhaps, for some—particularly today, when songwriting is fading in popularity and respect—these are ideal examples of sturdy songcraft (verses and bridges) as well as some of the most alluring melodies ever written. Nelson's reading of Gerald Marks and Seymour Simon's "All of Me," previously recorded by every popular singer of note from Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, is absolutely right from the very first note. Nelson attacks it with vigor, backed by Jones's prominent organ and, eventually, his own single-note solo on acoustic guitar.

The 45rpm pressing on 200gm vinyl shows the impeccable care that Analogue Productions lavishes on all its reissues. The higher speed means shorter sides (in this case, 45 minutes of music spread over two discs), and while it may be an audio mirage, the sound is more alive, more present than on a 331/3rpm LP.

Right down to the cover painting by the late Susanna Clark, wife of the late singer-songwriter Guy Clark, and the back-cover shot of Willie in his hippie top hat, this album is a near-perfect blend of conception and execution. A highlight of Nelson's long career, it's not really country music, but a tribute to the universal appeal of the Great American Songbook.—Robert Baird

mtrot's picture

Wow, Stardust is one of my favorite LPs, but the sound is not the greatest. In what ways does this new AP release improve the audio quality?

Edit: I just spun up my Stardust LP and it sounds great. I think what happened was that I had taken that LP with me to an audio shop and played it when it didn't sound so good.

dalethorn's picture

I read your "not the greatest" and for a moment I thought you might be talking of the new 45 rpm discs, but you probably mean the 1978 LP?

mtrot's picture


dalethorn's picture

I talked to Acoustic Sounds, and they say that the 45's are the 2017 master, but their 24/88 downloads are a "Sony product" and not the new master. While I appreciate Stereophile, the audiophile business in general, and high-res recordings in particular, I *really* do not like this "marketing" crap that reserves the best or most recent highly-praised and highly-reviewed mastering for one format only. That, in a way, is much like the nonsense we consumers have been plagued with since I was a teenager - buy the recording many times over as each format becomes obsolete, or is superceded by a "great", "better", "even better", and "best yet" remastering. Yes, I *will* pay to get the latest on a high-res download, but no - I will *not* buy a record player to use these 45's, nor will I purchase other gear I don't already have just because the latest master isn't available on a PCM download.

dc_bruce's picture

Having been collecting recorded music since well before 1978, I have accumulated quite a stack of vinyl records and silver discs. In fact, in the early CD era I pretty much neglected vinyl, even going so far as to repurchase CD recordings of some of my vinyl records. That was a big mistake. The only utility of those CDs is to demonstrate to skeptics the inferiority of digital (at least of that era) by conducting a side-by-side playback of the record and the CD through my system.

Kudos to "Aural Robert" for bringing attention to this recording, it's a great one. I own a "20-bit remastered" CD version. The trick to escaping the "Groundhog Day" of continually repurchasing the same recording in the latest and greatest format, is to decided, at what point the version you have is "good enough," and stop there, spending your money on something don't own. I have no doubt that this 45 rpm record version would sound better on my system would sound better than my "20-bit remastered" CD.

But I have to save my dollars, in this case, because my old Sony XA-777ES's SACD laser has failed. So, it's probably time to replace my digital playback system. The new system, whatever it is, will probably improve the sound of the "20-bit remastered" Stardust CD, among others.

Glotz's picture

There are many LP's that I own that need replacing, either than to sound quality or wear and tear.

Other originals, analog or digital, may be fine, and then I don't purchase the newest or latest version. There are many audiophiles that own several copies of the same recording, and that is completely silly. There are so many more titles out there to own, it's not even worth caring about. To each their own. I am sure if I won the lottery, I would buy many old recordings over, and in different formats. It's just not important to the frugally minded.

DanGB's picture

Right from the moment I first heard a worn'n'cruddy LP of 'Stardust', I loved it. I soon acquired a nice clean example myself, and it is one of those albums you return to when you need that comforting feeling of being in safe and expert hands. You know every song will hit the spot, and nothing will jar.

It also exposed me to songs from well before my time, which I have since researched for older/original renditions, which has been a pleasure all of its own.

mauidj's picture

But this is not a review.
The album has been redone many times. How about comparing it to some other versions as MF always does.
Sorry...this is pretty useless in the scheme of things. I guess I will just stick with my Classic Records 45 single side version. Would love to have heard how this one stacks up.