By 1977, Willie Nelson had been called a lot of derogatory things in his decades-long struggle to make it in country music. But even the most open-minded person could certainly forgive his record company, management, friends and fans for believing that besides writing the song "Crazy," he'd gone a little crazy too.
Just when Nelson's star was in full ascendancy and "outlaw country" was the hot sound, the ever unpredictable favorite son of Abbott, Texas decided that his next record project would be… a disc of some of his favorite covers… mostly sentimental pop tunes from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s… produced by a black guy best known for gritty soul hits…
"Why be predictable?" author Joe Nick Patoski recounts Willie telling a friend in Patoski's recent bio Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. "Great songs are great songs, no matter when they’re written. My audience right now is young, they’ll think these are new songs. At the same time, we’ll get the sentiment of the older audience who grew up with all those songs, who don’t necessarily know me as an artist. I think we’ll be able to bridge that gap."
And how. Against all odds, the resulting effort - 1978’s Stardust, produced by Booker T. Jones - became a huge hit. Turns out that Willie’s takes on the songs of Hoagy Carmichael (the title track, "Georgia On My Mind"), Irving Berlin ("Blue Skies"), the Gershwins ("Someone to Watch Over Me"), Duke Ellington ("Don’t Get Around Much Anymore"), and others like "Blue Skies," "September Song," and "Moonlight in Vermont" appealed to a huge audience. Stardust hit No. 1 on the country and No. 5 on the pop charts. At five times platinum, it remains the single best-selling album of Nelson’s entire career.
Thirty years on, Columbia Records had made Stardust the latest addition to its “Legacy Edition” series. In addition to the entire 10-track original record, this reissue also includes a 16-track bonus disc of other Nelson-sung “Great American Songbook” numbers from over the years - long before that hag Rod Stewart opened it - and a booklet containing a historical essay and new photos.
Houstoned Rocks talked with Gregg Geller, who produced the Stardust reissue, about the record and its long-lasting impact.
Houstoned Rocks: What made you decide to give Stardust the Legacy Editions treatment? Gregg Geller: Columbia already had the idea of a career-spanning box set in mind, so that came together first. One Hell of a Ride was released shortly before Willie’s 75th birthday in April. They also had the idea to do Legacy Editions of Stardust and Red Headed Stranger. Willie's management was keen on the idea, and Stardust came together more quickly. As it stands, Red Headed Stranger likely won't appear until next year.
Houstoned Rocks: Most people thought Willie was nuts for wanting to cut a record of standards at the height of his outlaw country career. What was the initial reaction from Columbia? Gregg Geller: I was actually on the Columbia A&R staff in 1978 and can tell you that Willie, with Red Headed Stranger, had bought himself the benefit of the doubt in the New York office. We were ready to go with whatever he came up with. Nashville was another story, however - there was some concern amongst the people who were responsible for promoting and selling "country" records that Stardust wouldn't appeal to the new and large audience that had grown up around Willie.
Willie's instincts obviously were right on the money. His arrangements, and the nuances he put into their recording, make evident that he had a lot of love for these songs. You can hear his reverence toward the material. Since its release, Stardust has proven to be hugely influential, with most major superstars of today having at least one "Great American Songbook" in their catalogs.
HR: Columbia's Legacy Editions, as well as recent reissues from companies like Rhino and Shout! Factory, come with not only the reissued record, but also live tracks, rarities, and alternate takes. How do you decide what to put on the CD to entice the hardcore fans of each artist? GG: The objective of a Legacy Edition is to expand upon, illuminate, and/or complement a classic album. But it depends upon what type of material is available to achieve those goals.
HR: Finally, what has been the best-selling Legacy Edition to date? GG: According to sales figures, it’s the soundtrack to the film Dirty Dancing! The Clash’s London Calling is No. 2 - Bob Ruggiero
Willie Nelson, obviously, plays his own Picnic today at Sam Houston Race Park with Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Billy Joe Shaver, Los Lonely Boys, Asleep at the Wheel and many more. More information here. Gates open at noon.