Sharps & Flats

Willie Nelson's 20-year-old masterpiece of classic songs, "Stardust," is re-released.

Published October 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Willie Nelson has always traveled the road between hubris and reverence, between irony and earnestness. He is, after all, the man who penned the Patsy Cline classic "Crazy" in the 1960s and then, a couple of decades later, teamed up with Julio Iglesias for "To All the Girls I've Loved Before." After the IRS busted Nelson in 1990 for skimming $16.7 million off the top of his taxes, he released a double album to help foot the bill, titled "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories." Two years later, in 1993, he released "Across the Borderline," a spectacular album that invoked more than 20 years of pop history in one masterful stroke.

Back in 1978, with a modest career of successes and missteps already behind him, Nelson announced that an album of string-backed, jazz-age standards, "Stardust," would cap his early '70s experiments with outlaw country. Naysayers predicted a schmaltzy cabaret that would conclusively douse the Red-Headed Stranger's flaming career. The result, of course, was just the opposite. "Stardust," reissued this year with two new tracks, is one of Nelson's all-time bestselling albums: To date, it has sold 4 million copies.

The same forces that made "Stardust" successful 20 years ago make the album eminently satisfying today: the lush production of Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs), the gorgeous, soulful harmonica of Mickey Raphael and Nelson's quivering tenor. Most important, though, are the songs, some of the most moving standards ever written. It's Nelson's faith in Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael songs, his sincerity and his willingness to risk going completely over the top, that ultimately give "Stardust" a bit of its namesake.

From the opening strains of "Georgia on My Mind," the second track, it's clear that this is a monumental album. The song begins with Jones' restrained organ lines and builds slowly, adding delicately picked acoustic guitar and Bobbie Nelson's gently meandering piano. The amazing feat is that Nelson is able to fully inhabit a song that Ray Charles defined for several generations of listeners. Nelson does it with confidence, becoming as relaxed with the song as he is on one of his own.

The rest of the album is equally marvelous. Nelson imbues the dozen songs with a jazzy, meandering flavor that sounds natural to the point of inevitable. From "All of Me" to "Moonlight in Vermont," "Stardust" has not one musical misstep. The album only stumbles on a surprisingly stiff "On the Sunny Side of the Street," where Nelson sounds, for the first time, forced instead of unerringly smooth.

The new package -- essentially a pair of mini-essays, one by "Mickey Raphael With Willie Nelson" and one by Jones -- doesn't add much. "Scarlet Ribbons," one of the two bonus tracks, is fine, but just fine sounds out of place on an album of classics. "I Can See Clearly Now," however, is a more welcome addition. The Johnny Nash song, performed here the way Jimmy Cliff recorded it, seems custom-made for this effort. Nelson nimbly ambles through the lyrics, gently touching down on phrases that Cliff savored and lingered on. The song builds to more of a climax than most of the songs here. Raphael's harmonica explodes and Jones' roiling organ swells and crests in washes of glorious sound. "It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day," Nelson purrs in a tone that is about two steps away from winding up in the dairy aisle. And it's impossible not to believe him.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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