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)

September Song

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?

“September Song”/Willie Nelson (buy it here)
“September Song”/Lou Reed (buy it here)