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As ‘Stardust’ Turns 40, Willie Nelson Talks About the Great American Songbook

Says the country icon: “Good songs never die. If it was good a hundred years ago, it’s still good today.”

It will likely come as no surprise that, 40 years after the release of his classic album of standards “Stardust,” Willie Nelson will be releasing another standards-filled new collection, this one devoted to the repertoire of Frank Sinatra.

“Sinatra and I were very good friends,” Nelson says by way of explanation. “He was my favorite singer, and he had written one time in an article that I was his favorite singer, so we kinda kicked it off good together, and we worked a few shows together, did a couple of albums together, and a video. He was just a buddy.”

Nelson expects that the Sinatra project, titled “My Way,” will be released on the heels of “Last Man Standing,” his new Legacy Recordings album, out today (April 27), just ahead of his 85th birthday. Buddy Cannon, who has produced most of the singer-songwriter’s recent records, recorded the horn- and string-laden backing tracks for the upcoming release in Nashville, with Nelson laying down vocals in his Austin studio. The album was co-produced by Matt Rollings.

“My Way,” like “Stardust,” will comprise evergreens from the Great American Songbook like “Night and Day” (which Nelson previously cut for a like-titled 1999 collection of instrumentals) and “A Foggy Day.” He continues to view standards as a timeless source of repertoire.

“It is a deep well,” Nelson notes, “because good songs never die. If it was good a hundred years ago, it’s still good today.”

When Nelson set about recording “Stardust” in late 1977, collections of standards were hardly a commonplace, especially for late-blooming country talents. In fact, during that era, even Sinatra had largely abandoned the standard book for compositions by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Neil Diamond, Stevie Wonder and Jim Croce.

Nelson’s status had only recently changed from that of a gifted, hit-penning songwriter who didn’t sell many records. The one-two punch of 1975’s “Red Headed Stranger,” the product of what was inked as a one-off deal with Columbia, and the 1976 RCA anthology “Wanted! The Outlaws” had established his profile as outlaw country’s major act.

The success of “Stranger” had been followed up by a pair of relatively conservative LPs, one of them a tribute to ‘50s country star Lefty Frizzell. But Nelson, who was enjoying artistic carte blanche at Columbia as a result of his double-platinum hit, had an idea for a move into stylistic terra incognita.

His previous labels had shown little patience with their intransigent artist’s desire to record anything resembling a standard. Nelson had essayed a string-laden, Patsy Cline-like interpretation of the 1929 pop chestnut “Am I Blue” at Liberty in 1963. During a long, unproductive stay at RCA, he’d slip the occasional oddball number in among his own compositions and various country covers, such as “Don’t Fence Me In,” Cole Porter’s “cowboy song” (1964) and Frank Loesser’s “Have I Stayed Away Too Long” (1966), also essayed by Tex Ritter and Charlie Rich.

But recording an album-length set of American standards was a notion that had continued to percolate within him.

He says, “The idea was, a good song will always be good, and I played these songs all my life, practically – ‘Stardust,’ ‘Moonlight in Vermont.’ All those songs my sister [pianist and longtime accompanist Bobbie] 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.”

In 1977, Nelson was spending a good deal of time in Los Angeles, scoping out the movie business. (His breakthrough acting roles would come in 1979’s “The Electric Horseman” and 1980’s “Honeysuckle Rose.”) But his long-contemplated standards project would get a liftoff from one of his Malibu neighbors: Booker T. Jones, the former keyboardist of Booker T. & the MG’s, the potent instrumental combo and house band of Memphis’ Stax Records.

“Actually,” Nelson recalls, “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.

“There were a lot of [the songs] I knew I wanted to record. There were a few he 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.”

Ultimately, 10 tracks were selected from tunes recorded at Brian Ahern’s home, employing the producer-engineer’s Enactron Truck mobile studio. They included Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” originally an instrumental and later augmented with lyrics by Mitchell Parrish, Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind,” Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and George and Ira Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Columbia’s country division had meager expectations for Nelson’s lean, subdued collection of classic songs, which didn’t sit comfortably with the outlaw image formulated on “Red Headed Stranger.” So the execs were not holding their breath for the first sales reports after “Stardust” was issued in April 1978.

And then, suddenly, the label had a smash hit on its hands – one that proved to be the bestselling album of Willie Nelson’s recording career. The surpassing warmth and sensitivity of his interpretive singing won him legions of new fans, many of whom may have been only vaguely aware of his country recordings.

“Stardust” spawned two No. 1 country singles, “Georgia On My Mind” and a stunning minor-key interpretation of “Blue Skies,” and the No. 3 entry “All of Me.” The album spent a staggering 117 weeks on the pop albums chart, peaking at No. 30, and reached the top of the country LPs chart. In 1979, Nelson’s “Georgia” collected a Grammy Award as best male country vocal performance.

Ultimately certified for sales of five million copies, the album was the pivotal moment in Willie Nelson’s career, in which the performer morphed from one of country music’s most gifted practitioners to an artist who was beyond genre and category.

Nelson has frequently returned to the “deep well” he has drawn from so successfully and expressively. Among his many other excursions into standard terrain, he cites as his own personal favorites “Without a Song,” the 1983 sequel-of-sorts to “Stardust” that reunited him with producer Jones, and “American Classic,” a jazz-based set produced by Tommy LiPuma featuring the arrangements of Crusaders keyboardist Joe Sample.

The possibilities of the Great American Songbook – which will play out again on “My Way” – are endless, Nelson says: “‘Stardust’ was a good album. It had all those standards in it, but there’s also hundreds more of those standards that can be recorded.”

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