Willie Nelson may be the king of outlaw country, but the LP that made him a household name was Stardust, his quintuple-platinum 1978 set of old-school pop standards like “Georgia On My Mind,” “All Of Me,” and “Blue Skies.” Blue-jeaned badasses might’ve sneered that their Whiskey River-running hero had gone soft. But it was a revelatory set, connecting Red Headed Stranger’s roughneck conceptualist to the prodigy traditionalist who wrote Patsy Cline’s 1962 hit “Crazy,” and then outwards to phrase-parsing croon scientists like Sinatra and master musicians like Nelson’s beloved Bob Wills, who gave precious few fucks when it came to genre borders. The songs were unfade-able, the arrangements unconventional, Nelson’s readings unsentimental and, to a one, killing.
The theme here, a return to Stardust’s approach, seems to have chosen itself in the wake of Willie receiving the prestigious Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2015. Yes, his voice is more fragile than it was 38 years ago, the vibrato a less tightly reined. But it remains vivid and well-matched to the material. On the title track and elsewhere, Mickey Raphael echoes Willie’s breathy tremors on harmonica. And it’s not all ballads: Paul Franklin swings the pedal steel on “Somebody Loves Me” (a hit for Canadian choirboys The Four Lads in 1952), with Willie skipping along. Cyndi Lauper, with a country set of her own due this year, brings her best Betty Boop to a fairly adorable version of “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” while Willie saunters through “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” serenading the way his lover sings off-key with a wink.
But the torch songs are the thing. He brings tender dignity to the loneliness of “Someone To Watch Over Me” as a “little lamb who’s lost in the woods.” And he plays leading man on “Embraceable You” beside Sheryl Crow, who convincingly conjures Doris Day while Willie invites her to “come to Poppa” with absolute stoner elegance. The harmonies may be a bit wobbly, but they’re more charming for it. At 82, the man has been banging out an album or two of new recordings every year for a while now, all of them remarkably worthy additions to his catalog. It’s a work ethic his fellow cannabis advocates, and indeed all Americans, can be proud of.