july 2008

Willie Nelson. Hell Yeah.

By David McGee


Willie Nelson at Bonnaroo last month (Photo by Audrey Harrod)

Willie Nelson

You’d have thought that by 1978 Willie Nelson had proved his point with regard to his own musical instincts, in the wake of the success of The Red Headed Stranger and the acceptance of the rougher-hewn sounds of the Outlaw movement. Still, he met some resistance at Columbia when he proposed recording an album of classic pop tunes—with Booker T. Jones as his producer, no less. Once again Willie’s instinct was infallible—the album, Stardust, logged more than two years on Billboard’s Album Chart and a decade on the Country Chart, selling five million-plus units along the way.

Willie’s wasn’t such a radical idea, though, especially in country circles. One of Willie’s heroes, Bob Wills, had dipped into the pop songbook on occasion, and Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold and other country and bluegrass artists had visited it as well. And at the time Willie made his run at the Great American Songbook, the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, was still very much with us, so was Rosemary Clooney, so was Peggy Lee, and Tony Bennett still is with us, still championing these durable, timeless tunes, but there was a malaise in their world, perhaps owing to a dearth of new blood to carry the banner forward. All Willie, Jones and the accompanying musicians did was craft a sotto voce masterpiece, laid-back, dreamy and captivating, each song an elegantly crafted mating of beautiful music and rich, deeply textured lyrics, all deserving of their classic stature in American popular culture. Consequently, Stardust reinvigorated the Great American Songbook and laid the groundwork for future generations to draw from it at will, which has given us inspired investigations into its riches from the likes of Linda Ronstadt (with her triptych of Nelson Riddle-arranged albums) to lesser, somewhat cynical outings by, say, Rod Stewart. Presently, yet another generation of gifted pop-jazz singers is emerging and doing wonderful things with this material, everyone from Jane Manheit to Tierney Sutton to Kate McGarry, among others. Let’s neither mince words here nor give Tony Bennett anything less than the deep and abiding respect he deserves, but the Songbook owes its current vitality to what Willie wrought in ’78.

This Legacy Edition of Stardust is a well annotated (by Rich Kienzle) double disc set. Disc One is the original 10-song release that features Willie’s soothing, laid-back vocals and plaintive gut-string guitar solos backed by Jones’s gently humming organ, Mickey Raphael’s atmospheric harmonica filigrees, a subdued rhythm section (bassists Chris Ethridge and Bee Spears; drummers Paul English and Rex Ludwig), ruminative piano work by Bobbie Nelson and Bob “Chicago” Nelson, and a string section operating in the shadows of the arrangements. There’s a little bit of a strut now and then—Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s “On the Sunny Side of the Street” shuffles along at a leisurely pace that allows a wail from Raphael’s harp to stand out as a kind of exuberant howdy-do; “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” has a cool swing about it, triggered by jazzy twin electric guitars and Jones’s organ vamping; Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” threatens to break into a faster lope but Jones keeps it controlled, a bit restrained, and despite the title his brooding arrangement suggests something darker than the optimistic lyrics articulate. The cool, string-enriched blues of “Georgia On My Mind” gives it a melancholy cast quite distinct from Ray Charles’ classic take, although Brother Ray is certainly evoked at the end when the temperature rises upon the entrance of a robust horn section that would have been right at home with Jones in the Stax studio a decade earlier.

Disc Two collects 16 more songs in the same vein recorded for various projects and with various producers between 1976 (two years prior to Stardust) and 1990, although the bulk come from 1980s albums. The earliest of the tracks, 1976’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” featuring Willie and his basic band (pedal steel guitarist Tom Morrell particularly stands out with his delicate, moaning lines), was produced by Willie for his The Sound In Your Mind album, and has not a pop feel but rather the stark, dry ambiance of an old west ballad. Some of these venture into territory Willie avoided with Booker T., such as the Fred Foster-produced “Little Things Mean a Lot,” from 1990’s Born For Trouble LP, which is marked by a Cinemascope arrangement defined by a lush, soaring string section, multi-voiced backing chorus and an uncredited but burbling trumpet solo at the end. For devotees of Willie’s perennially underrated small combo jazz album, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, three cuts are present and accounted for, namely “I’m Confesssin’ (That I Love You),” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and an evocative “Mona Lisa,” with striking gypsy guitar solos as provided by jazz guitarist Freddie Powers, who was joined by Johnny Gimble on fiddle, Paul Buskirk on mandolin and bassists Dean Reynolds and Bob Moore in a Texas plains version of Django Rheinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France (while touring Europe in 2002, Willie often sported a Django t-shirt on stage). Even more overlooked than Somewhere Over the Rainbow, although admittedly less compelling, was Willie’s 1979 get together with Leon Russell on the duo’s One For the Road long player, spotlighted here in three ambitious cuts on which Willie is handling all the vocals and Russell all the instruments. “Tenderly,” “Stormy Weather” and “One For the Road” work because Willie’s singing is suitably yearning or attitudinous (“One For the Road”), but the use of synthesized strings and, on the latter, a shimmering electric piano, distract from the introspective nature of Willie’s vocals and give the tracks an unsettling hard veneer. But then there’s two cuts from 1984’s scintillating Nelson-produced Angel Eyes album, another small combo effort done with a jazz quartet, notable for a seductive, moody take on the classic Sinatra title track enriched by Don Hass’s lonely, saloon-style piano and a weathered guest vocal from none other than Ray Charles.

Released as part of the label’s ongoing celebration of Willie’s 75th birthday year, Stardust: Legacy Edition, coming on the heels of the essential four-CD box set, One Hell of a Ride (see “Willie Nelson. Damn Right.” in TheBluegrassSpecial.com’s April 2008 premier issue), underscores yet again the depth of a remarkable, landscape altering body of work. It makes a fellow proud to be alive to enjoy it all.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024