Because both his own legacy has been somewhat dampened by a scattershot, inconsistent late-career output and indefensible choices such as appearing in the film adaptation of The Dukes of Hazzard, and the concept of pop-standards albums has been cheapened by the desperate efforts of everyone from Rod Stewart to Queen Latifah, it’s difficult to approach Willie Nelson’s Stardust 30 years after its initial release. As much a classic for the context in which Nelson released it as for its nearly flawless execution, the album’s new Legacy Edition reissue offers a disc of bonus material that, as good as it is, only highlights that it is nearly impossible to improve upon the slate of 10 timeless tracks that Nelson, his band and producer Booker T. Jones released back in 1978.
The idea of a country artist recording a collection of pop standards was hardly groundbreaking even in the late 1970s, as albums like Eddy Arnold’s Wanderin’ and Ferlin Husky’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams were crossover hits two decades prior, and Nelson himself used “That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day)” to open 1976’s The Sound in Your Mind. What was so radical about the release of Stardust, then, was its timing. The Outlaw movement was at its peak, with Nelson as one of its key players, and 1975’s landmark Red Headed Stranger had made him a superstar both within and beyond country music. However problematic the conservatism of Music Row executives may be, that Columbia Records’s head of marketing, Rick Blackburn, balked at Nelson’s would-be sales pitch for Stardust actually makes sense.
It was Nelson’s commercial cachet that got the green light for the project, but it was the sheer quality of the record that made Stardust a bona fide phenomenon. With his three previous albums, Stranger, Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie, Nelson truly came into his own as a recording artist, developing the laidback, poetic style that would eventually become his trademark, and revolting against the mainstream country music of the era by simply recording music that was indisputably superior to his contemporaries. What makes Stardust all the more remarkable, and what surely accounts for its commercial success, is that Nelson was able to take the songs of Hoagy Carmichel and George and Ira Gershwin and make them fit within his own aesthetic. The songs are still recognizable as standards, but they’re performed in Nelson’s unique, immediately identifiable style. As such, Stardust works not only as one of the definitive collections from the “American Songbook,” but as perhaps the greatest testament to Nelson’s skill as an artist.
The additional material provided for the Legacy Edition makes for a terrific supplement, though the fact that they were recorded over a 15-year span sacrifices the singularity of vision of the album proper. Still, the jazz-inflected country arrangement of “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” is a standout, as is a wonderfully subtle take on “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” While these bonus tracks lack the focus of the original Stardust sessions, they nonetheless speak to Nelson’s creativity in his approach to this kind of material.
Ultimately, it’s that creativity and the absolute command of his craft that’s captured here that makes so many of Nelson’s offerings over the last decade so frustrating in comparison. As Stardust makes plain, Nelson is capable of taking unexpected material and tailoring it to his strengths as a performer and interpreter (particularly the sensitivity he conveys with his plaintive, vibrato-heavy tenor and his ability to bend the meter of almost any lyric to fit his iconic behind-the-beat sense of phrasing), which makes complete misfires like 2005’s reggae-inspired nightmare Countryman or Moment of Forever, his disastrous take on contemporary country from earlier this year, all the more baffling. Though he’s balanced those nadirs with excellent efforts like You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker and 2006’s Songbird, not even the best of his current work is likely to prove as timeless as Stardust.