Expression and creativity are the blood and guts of a musician, so to record an entire album of completely unoriginal material worth listening to is often as difficult as recording an original album. The Rod Stewarts and Bette Midlers of modern times have caused standards albums to be greeted with cynicism. Standards have gone through drastic changes over time. Until the arrival of early rock and roll and R&B, standards composed most of the music heard on radio and they were the foundation of the careers of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the like. It was not until 1978 when Willie Nelson released “Stardust”, that the true standards album was born.
Sure, he was not the first artist to release an album entirely composed of standards, nor was he even the first country artist to do so. In 1957, Ferlin Husky, released “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, an album entirely composed of pop standards.
What makes Nelson’s “Stardust” so worthwhile is the attention he has given each song.
What makes recording a standards album hard is making each song so unlike other artists’ interpretations that it sounds brand new. Nelson makes this hurdle seem like a piece of cake.
The album was produced by Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the M.G.’s from Stax Records and recorded with Nelson’s band. It was recorded in a remarkable nine days in December of 1977 and released in 1978 under Columbia Records.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the album and Columbia has gratefully decided to remaster and reissue the album. They have also thrown in over 15 new songs not on the original album, but are standards released on various other albums of his.
The original album was released at a unique time in Nelson’s career.
“Stardust” occurred during the outlaw country craze, following a string of successful albums. For Nelson to abandon this and record an album of pop standards might have been one of his best career moves to date. By this time in his career, Nelson had already made a home in country with Red-Headed Stranger”, but it was not until “Stardust” that he truly revealed his iconic simplicity.
It is this simplicity that makes these songs so beautiful. With classics such as “Georgia on My Mind”, which won him a Grammy, and “I Can See Clearly Now” (which was not on the original release for some odd reason) the variety and complexity of these songs is above and beyond most standards albums. The album originally produced two chart-toppers, “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies” and stayed on the country charts for more than a decade. Each of these songs was hand-picked by Nelson for a reason. He loved these songs and each of them had their own special place in his heart since he was a child.
The gem of the album is “Moonlight in Vermont”. It is Nelson’s all-time favorite song and it is obvious after the first listen.
Originally written in the early 1940’s, it is a non-rhyming haiku form song simply about the Vermont countryside. It takes on a new form when Nelson touches it and its beauty can only be explained through listening.
Nelson’s band did not miss a beat either. The harmonica playing of Mickey Raphael hadn’t sounded so gut-wrenching since “Stranger.”
Another nice touch was Booker T’s organ. Having played gospel, soul, and nearly everything else but country, Booker had no trouble incorporating these styles into the album. The rest of the band played up to expectations as well.
If you have not heard the original “Stardust”, it is worth the listen.
If you have, it might be worth buying if you are a true Willie Nelson fan, although the extra 16 songs do not come close to the original album. It is an album cemented in country, pop, and time and will last as long as stardust.
Patrick Gardner is a fourth-year student majoring in communications studies. He can be reached at PG606594@wcupa.edu.