Willie Nelson Talks “Stardust” Struggles

Willie Nelson was on top of the Country music world in the mid-1970s. After he put Nashville in his rear view, Wille went back home to Texas. There he discovered his trademark sound. It was soon dubbed “Outlaw Country”.  Willie’s career was going better than ever, and he had never been more popular. That’s when he decided to mess with a winning formula.

Amid one of the greatest creative periods in music history, Nelson decided to release a cover album of old standards. His record company didn’t believe in him. Traditionalists questioned him. Critics scoffed at him. Nelson didn’t care. In 1978, Willie Nelson took the plunge into the Great American Songbook. What emerged was an album called “Stardust”.  

The album that nobody believed in put Willie Nelson into a new superstar stratosphere. Working with producer Booker T. Jones, Nelson was able to generate immense crossover appeal. In addition to the incredible success within the country community, “Stardust” spent an astounding 117 weeks on the pop albums chart, peaking at #30. Reception however wasn’t immediate. Radio deejays refused to give it air play initially, saying that it didn’t classify as country music. But fan response was massive. Due to listener demand, two of the singles rode a bullet to number one, “Blue Skies” and “Georgia on My Mind”.

“Stardust” was radical in its conception. Nearly 45 years later, it has become standard for established stars to record an album of standards. After Willie did it, countless others followed suit including Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Smokey Robinson, and Bob Dylan. However, this record was almost never made. But Willie Nelson preserved. In the process, he changed music forever. These are Willie’s recollections on his “Stardust” struggles.   

On Returning to Texas:

Willie once gave his friend Waylon Jennings some career advice: “Don’t go to Nashville. It’ll just break your heart”. Music City was not ready for Nelson’s evolving talents, and he was tired of playing the corporate music game. In 1972, it was time to get back to the people that got him. He states, “I’d go back to Texas and play all those beer joints where I grew up and wouldn’t have to change a thing. They all liked what I did. So I knew that what I was doing, I could do it forever – whether I pleased everybody in Nashville, or not”. Willie soon found he was more suited to a gritty raw delivery rather than the all-encompassing arrangements forced on him in Music City.      

“Good songs never die”:

As Nelson settled into his own style, he began to experiment at his live shows. According to Ken Burns’ acclaimed 2019 documentary Country Music, “He slipped some old pop standards – like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Georgia on My Mind’ – into his live performances. And discovered an enthusiastic response. ‘The kids in the crowd thought Stardust was a new song I had written,’ he explained. ‘The older folks remembered the song well and loved it as much as I did’”.  Willie simplifies the phenomenon saying simply, “Good songs never die. If it was good a hundred years ago, it’s still good today”.

On Getting Going with Booker:

Produced by American music legend Booker T. Jones, “Stardust” was truly the melding of two kindred musical spirts. And the result of a fortuitous living arrangement. Booker relates in a 2007 interview, “Willie rented the apartment underneath mine in Malibu, in 1976”. In an interview in 2018, Willie echoes Booker’s recollections, stating, “We wound up living in the same apartment building in L.A. He was above me a couple of stories. We hung out together, and we started talking about making records. It was just kind of a natural thing to do. We wanted to do some great standards, and he’s an incredible musician, arranger, producer. So, me and Booker just kind of went to work”.    

On the Album Concept:

“The idea was, a good song will always be good, and I played these songs all my life. All those songs my sister and I used to sit around the house and play when we were growing up in Texas. It wasn’t a big stretch for me to do these songs. There were a lot of [the songs] I knew I wanted to record. There were a few [Booker] wanted to introduce and let me see if I wanted to do ‘em. It didn’t take long to come up with 12 or 15 songs”. The finished album features ten American classics including an all-timer from Hoagy Carmichael named “Stardust”.   

On “Georgia on my mind”:

“Booker and I were linked by our love of the blues in general, and our love of Ray Charles in particular. When I had just the slightest hesitation about singing ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a song so closely associated with Ray, Booker encouraged me. ‘Ray did it his way,’ he said, ‘and you’ll do it yours. None of these songs belong to any particular singer. They belong to the world.'”. Jones was proven emphatically right. Nelson’s rendition of “Georgia on my Mind” skyrocketed to #1 and won him the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

On the Recording Process:

Recording took “little more than a week. I never felt rushed. I had lots of space to maneuver and calmly meditate on the meaning of these timeless songs. Had lots of time to caress the melodies in my own way. I had the freedom to let my guitar say what needed to be said”. Willie’s guitar work on “Stardust” is just as engrossing as his vocals. His poignant minor-key adaptation of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is particularly powerful.

“Stardust broke down barriers”: 

“What pleased me most was the damage done to narrow-minded thinking. Conventional wisdom said that country music fans wouldn’t go for pop standards, and it insisted that my new young audience wouldn’t go for old songs. Wrong on both counts. ‘Stardust’ broke down barriers and busted up categories. Its blockbuster sales success put me in a position where I never had to argue with record execs again. From then on, without discussion, I just kept recording what came to me naturally, without forethought or analysis”. 

Critics universally hailed the album as brilliant. It was commercially successful as well. As noted in the Burns documentary, “1978’s ‘Stardust’ sold five million copies, garnered [Nelson] a new audience, and is still considered one of his best works. The album also reached the top – and stayed on the charts for 551 weeks”. That is over ten and a half years.  Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” gamble could have ended his career. Instead, it made him one of the biggest stars in the history of music.

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