In 1978, Willie Nelson took an enormous creative and commercial risk. At the height of the outlaw country movement he spearheaded alongside Waylon Jennings, Willie cut an album of pop standards that twanged barely a whit. The album’s signature sound was not so much Willie’s distinctive guitar—although it was there—but the distinctive keyboard textures of Booker T. Jones, who also produced the album. It was called Stardust, and it could have bombed, but fortunately for Willie, and for all of us, it didn’t. The singles “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies” reached Number One on the country charts in June and September 1978 respectively; “All of Me” made Number Three early in 1979.
For years thereafter, Nelson returned to the Great American Songbook; the 30th anniversary edition of Stardust includes a whole second disc of cover versions that were sprinkled on various albums in Stardust‘s wake. (It’s a testimonial to Booker T.’s gift as a producer and sideman, and perhaps to Stardust‘s historical moment itself, that few of Willie’s later cover versions measure up to the Stardust standard.) The album has remained Nelson’s most popular record, and its success led to a second collaboration with Booker T. Jones: Pretty Paper, the holiday essential released 30 years ago this Christmas.
About the time I started working in country radio, the fourth single from Stardust, “September Song,” was on the charts. It didn’t match the success of its predecessors, making only Number 15 in Billboard, but it’s my favorite song on the album.
“September Song” has an interesting history. With music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson, it first appeared a musical called Knickerbocker Holiday, which premiered on Broadway in 1938. The musical, a political allegory set in 17th century New Amsterdam and comparing the New Deal to fascism, ran for about five months, closing early in 1939. “September Song” was sung in the original production by Walter Huston (father of director John and grandfather of actress Anjelica). In 1946, Frank Sinatra scored a more substantial hit with it. In 1950, the song was featured in a movie called September Affair; it seems a better fit for a sentimental love story than for political commentary. After that, Stan Kenton, Liberace, Dean Martin, and Sarah Vaughan cut popular versions of it. It’s been recorded by lots of jazz players, but also by country singers Eddy Arnold and Faron Young, James Brown, Lindsey Buckingham, Fats Domino, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Lynne, and the Platters. Lou Reed cut one of the best versions you’ll ever hear for a Kurt Weill tribute album in 1985.
But Willie Nelson’s version of “September Song” is matchless. He changed Huston’s reading of the lyric, making it more sentimental, but also more timeless. Booker T. outdid himself, contributing a gorgeous arrangement and providing sensitive and brilliant keyboards. Part of the appeal of Huston’s recording is the obvious age in his voice, and the way it accentuates the difference between May and December. Willie’s not quite so gruff, but when he sings about how “the days dwindle down to a precious few,” you know he feels them slipping away with an urgency that can’t be grasped by the younger girl he’s singing them to.
Some things you just don’t get until you’re older. I liked “September Song” when I was much younger. Now? Do you even have to ask?