Stardust in the Snow

Willie Nelson had enjoyed one of the biggest hits of his career in 1978 and 1979 with Stardust, his collaboration with producer Booker T. Jones. It went to Number One on the country album chart and Number 30 pop, and contained three monster hit singles. But all that success did not buy Willie any time off. I was just starting out in country radio at the time, and I was struck by how quickly country artists churned out product in those days. Artists would go three singles deep on an album and wham, release another one almost immediately, two or even three a year. (This frequently resulted in precisely the quality-control problem you might expect.)

And so in early 1979, Willie released a collaboration with Leon Russell called One for the Road. His former label, RCA, released a cash-in compilation called Sweet Memories. And on November 18, Nelson released two albums simultaneously: Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson, which features nearly all of the songs for which Kristofferson is best known, and Pretty Paper, a Christmas album. Roy Orbison had hit with “Pretty Paper” in 1963, but Willie had written it, so it was a natural choice for the album’s title song. It was also a natural choice for Willie and his band to collaborate once again with Jones, who brought the Stardust vibe to the new project.

It’s a measure of the combined artistry of Willie and Booker T that even the most hackneyed of holiday warhorses, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells,” have their own unique flavor. “Silent Night” begins with a ghostly organ that’s the sound of starlight (stardust, maybe?) shining over a snowy landscape—for years, I used it as background music for Christmas legal IDs at my radio stations. And the medley of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Christmas Blues” is the most perfect album-closing track this side of “A Day in the Life.” The album runs less than 30 minutes, but they’re 30 good minutes.

Pretty Paper isn’t an album to whip out when the Christmas party starts to smokin’. The title song is, after all, about a homeless man on a sidewalk—not exactly typical holiday fare—and the whole album has a somber feel. If you’re plugged into Willie and Booker T.’s vision, that’s not a problem, because Christmas itself never comes without a ration of somber moments. I’m not talking about the years when everything’s shot to hell, the first Christmas after Dad lost his job or Mom ran off with the mailman. I’m talking about those somber moments that happen even in the midst of plenty and joy, when we’re reminded of loved ones who are gone, or we note the swift passage of time in our own lives, or we recall particularly memorable Christmases that we’d like to live in forever. (Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so.) There’s no holiday album that does better at capturing the quiet moments of reflection amidst the tinsel and glitter of Christmas than Pretty Paper.

“Silent Night”/Willie Nelson (buy it here)

3 thoughts on “Stardust in the Snow

  1. You are correct. Back in the 60s & 70s many artists released 2 or 3 albums a year & it’s also true that meant a lot of junk was foisted on the public. One of the pressures Brian Wilson felt from Capitol Records was their insistence that the Beach Boys put out 3 records a year. They were not happy when Pet Sounds took too long to be completed. This had a lot to do with Brian’s breakdown. Anyone who listens to The Beach Boys albums that preceded this classic will most certainly understand what you wrote.

    As far as serious Christmas songs go I never tire of them. They are the best Christmas songs. An example is one you wrote about last year, Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

  2. porky

    Brian Wilson’s breakdown (NOT a bluegrass song) was in ’64. The BB’s put out three albums in ’65, two of superb quality and one a goofy filler.

    Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and Beach Boys Today! are loaded with fantastic tunes and only one foray into the dopey studio chatter featured on previous LP’s. Beach Boys’ Party! (they loved their exclamation points that year) was the goofy filler.

    Bands today would kill to release two records of that calibre in one year.

    Today! is their Revolver; an overlooked record before their “masterpiece.” As a fan of both bands I get a little tired of the “greatest record ever” hoohah that’s pulled out every other year in music surveys for “Pepper” and Pet Sounds.

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