When country singers go back to their roots, the album’s usually called Amazing Grace, but Willie Nelson’s never been known for his orthodoxy. Instead of hymns, he’s giving us ten of the best from popular classicists like George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin. Still, Stardust traces Nelson’s musical family tree more convincingly than The Troublemaker, his own white-gospel collection.
In one sense, Stardust is a memory album: “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Georgia on My Mind” and the rest were songs Nelson grew up playing in dives and dance halls across Texas. He and his band haven’t reworked them much since then. You can still hear a hint of polka and the clippety-clop of singing cowboys in the bass line of “Blue Skies,” and the black-tie-and-champagne bounce of “Someone to Watch Over Me” has been smoothed to a whiskey (straight up) fox trot. A harmonica does the duty of a horn section, and in between the verses Nelson picks out the melody on his guitar. The notes are as sweet and easy as the smiles of the women eyeing the bandstand over their partners’ shoulders.
Stardust is also Nelson’s tribute to his teachers — as a songwriter, he learned a lot from these guys. Like how to open a song with a rush and a phrase that lands you in the middle of a situation: “All of me…” or “Hello, walls….” Or how to cover the two-by-fours of verse/verse/bridge with a seamless melody that glides over all the joints and angles. Willie Nelson, singer, learned his offbeat phrasing from urbane songs like these, where it still shows off best. Refusing to be hurried by the band, he strolls through “All of Me” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” as wry and debonair as the lyrics.
But Stardust is more than a personal history or testimonial. It’s a reminder. The songs Nelson has chosen are a part of Nashville’s collective bloodlines too, as much as tent-show evangelism and barroom stomps are. The old standards’ precise balance of artifice and sentiment stood as a pattern for the popular song that was never seriously challenged until the eruption of rock & roll. In Nashville, it persisted even then. In “Stardust” or “September Song,” as in Nashville’s most enduring creations (including many of Nelson’s own), resignation, with its implied self-sufficiency, triumphs — barely — over whatever agony of emotion is at hand. Tears may slide into the beer, but the singer’s dignity is preserved.
For all the sleek sophistication of the material, Stardust is as down-home as the Legion dance. Heard coast to coast in lounges and on elevator soundtracks, these tunes have become part of the folk music of exurban America. And that’s the way Nelson plays them — spare and simple, with a jump band’s verve and a storyteller’s love of a good tale. By offering these songs, he’s displaying the tools of a journeyman musician’s trade — worn smooth and polished by constant use — and when he lays them out this way, they kind of look like works of art. Willie Nelson may be acknowledging both his own and country music’s debt to Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, but he’s also showing these hallowed musical institutions how the country makes their music its own.