American singer, songwriter and musician, Willie Nelson performs live on stage in New York in April 1978.
Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

'Stardust': The Story Behind the Record-Smashing Willie Nelson Album His Label Didn't Want

By 1977, Willie Nelson had finally broken through into the mainstream. After a decade of trying in Nashville, the Red Headed Stranger returned back to Texas in 1970. From there, Nelson reshaped his sound.

Though he released well over a dozen records, nothing really stuck for Nelson. He received plenty of praise as a songwriter, but met nothing but resistance in his artistry. Nelson's jazzy vocal phrasing and jangly guitar didn't really fit the "Nashville Sound" model (though the country music biz certainly tried to make it work).

But after nearly quitting music and then finding himself again in Austin, Nelson hit his stride. Beginning with 1974's Phases and Stages, Nelson released a string of critically lauded albums. That includes three No. 1 records within two years and the legendary Red Headed Stranger concept album.

Naturally, you'd think Nelson would be happy with his spot at the forefront of the outlaw country movement. But instead of riding that horse til it died, he did something others tried to make him do for years. He celebrated the work of Frank Sinatra, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, Georgia and Ira Gershwin and other influencers of modern popular music.

A Collection Of Some Of The Greatest Pop Standards Ever

Nelson chose 10 of the most well-known pop standards in the American music catalog for his new album Stardust. Which, obviously, takes its name from the title track, a 1929 big band classic made famous by Bing Crosby.

His label at the time, Columbia Records, saw some risk there. And really, you can't blame them for questioning whether Nelson would have success. It's kind of like McDonalds suddenly wanting to serve tofu Big Macs.

Nelson recalled their reaction in an interview with "This is not a good idea," Nelson remembers his bosses saying. "It costs too much money first of all, and these old songs, nobody wants to hear 'em anymore. Again, they were wrong."

But Nelson had a plan, and it started with selecting his favorite pop standards from the jazz world that so influenced his own style. And really, it all started with a simple arrangement of 1944 tune "Moonlight In Vermont."

When Nelson established a house in Malibu, he struck up a friendship with neighbor Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the M.G.'s fame). A phenomenal composer and arranger in his own right, Jones delivered an arrangement of "Moonlight In Vermont" at Nelson's request. Willie loved it so much, he asked Jones to produce the whole record.

Competing With The Greats

It actually takes a lot of guts to do what Willie Nelson did with Stardust. Though he achieved fame as a singer, he never really achieved praise as a technically gifted one. And yet Nelson chose to cover songs like "Georgie On My Mind" and "Unchained Melody." The former, of course, made famous by Ray Charles in 1960, and the latter made famous by Bobby Hatfield and The Righteous Brothers in 1965.

Other songs Nelson tackled were made famous by the likes of James Brown, Nat King Cole, Sam Cooke and more. And yet, despite singing songs of giants, Nelson delivered something uniquely soulful and touching.

The sparse production rarely more than a guitar, some keys and a jazz kit, Stardust managed to sound as country as could be. And though he'd reached the first great successes of his career, Nelson comes across as broken and lonesome. The staggering contrast took many by surprise. And the record's success took nearly everybody else by surprise.

Other musical accompaniment comes from regular Nelson collaborators like harmonica player Mickey Raphael and drummer Paul English.

A Surprise Success

The record was not, by any stretch of the imagination, intended to be a smash hit. Jones and Nelson recorded the whole thing in 10 days during December 1977. In some ways, it just came down to a passion project with really good songs.

But as soon as Columbia released Stardust in April 1978, critics fell in love. Ariel Swartley said in Rolling Stone, "For all the sleek sophistication of the material, Stardust is as down-home as the Legion dance." Robert Christgau called "Moonlight In Vermont" a "revelation" and said Nelson gave these songs an emotional access, "schmaltz-free."

Fans ate it up, too. The album peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Country charts and No. 3 on the Billboard 200. He landed two consecutive No. 1 hits with "Blue Skies" and "All Of Me." By December — only eight months after its release — Stardust hit platinum for the first of what would become five times.

A few months later, Willie Nelson won the Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his version of "Georgia On My Mind."

An Auspicious Anniversary

On January 9, 1990, Stardust went platinum for a fourth time in the United States. It reached a fifth in 2002 after a reissue. The record shattered all of Nelson's previous sales totals. It also went platinum an amazing seven times in Australia, four times in New Zealand and twice in Canada.

Columbia eventually issued two more versions of the album with additional tracks. And not long ago — in 2015 — The Recording Academy inducted the album into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Obviously, it's a nice bit of validation for Nelson's career that a record his label didn't want to make ended up his most commercially successful ever. But beyond that, Stardust proved what Nelson tried to prove for years prior while in Nashville. Nelson always wanted to be an artist, but much of the industry settled on relegating him to a songwriter.

With Stardust, Nelson proved his artistry on ten songs written decades ago and covered by a litany of greats. And with Booker T. Jones taking the reins on arranging and producing, Wille Nelson focused solely on being an artist. His delivery resonated so well that Stardust launched him to international stardom as not just a writer, but an artist.

Stardust is now considered one of the greatest country albums of all time. Not bad, for a "bad idea."

Stardust Track Listing

1. Stardust
2. Georgia on My Mind
3. Blue Skies
4. All of Me
5. Unchained Melody
6. September Song
7. On the Sunny Side of the Street
8. Moonlight in Vermont
9. Don't Get Around Much Anymore
10. Someone to Watch Over Me

This story originally ran on Jan. 10, 2017

READ MORE: Nashville's Willie Nelson Museum Preserves a Bygone Era of Music