Hospitality is an open hand. It’s a gesture. It’s a way of telling someone that they are welcome, that they belong. In order to be hospitable, there must be space for another person.
Our culture uses the word as if it were the same as entertaining. This is wrong. The pure entertainer isn’t concerned with offering space. At best, the audience has an experience: they are razzled, dazzled, awed, and delighted. Think Sinatra in Vegas, singing the songs of a bygone era with panache.
It is grand to sit in the shadows of a great performance, but what happens when entertainers, musicians, choose to play host?
In 1978, a few Vegas-y numbers found their way into different hands: a singer-songwriter from Texas best known for his work in country music, and an arranger/producer/musician with a great history at Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Long before interpreting standards became trendy or cliche, in the era of outlaw country and disco, this unexpected pairing tendered a collection–ten songs written by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, and the Gershwins.
The album went on to storied success, peaking at #1 on the country charts, producing the country vocal of the year, named country album of the year, going platinum 8 months after its release, remaining on the Billboard 200 album chart for 10 years, listed as #260 of the top 500 albums of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine.
All these accolades, but let me add mine. Their album extends the Great American Songbook in ways unknown to the Strip, offering listeners something better than entertainment. From the opening finger-picked guitar notes of the title track to the final chord on the B-3, a listener is invited to not only stay awhile, but to draw close. This is not entertainment. This is a gift of hospitality and intimacy.
Our two artists first appeared on the Billboard music charts separately but in the same year, 1962. The country artist, best known for writing Patsy Cline’s hit “Crazy”, released his first solo album. Over the next 15 years, Willie Nelson would release 35 songs that became Hot Country hits. During this time, he became embroiled in record-label issues and ‘retired’ from music and especially from Nashville. He moved to Austin, TX, honing his sound. His biggest post-Nashville hits during this time were “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time”, but the hits don’t tell the whole story. The period also includes concept albums like “The Red Headed Stranger” and “Phases and Stages”, as well as his first recording of an outlaw country classic, “Whiskey River.”
Booker T. Jones was 17 years old in 1962, a session musician at Stax, writing lead sheets and string arrangements. That summer, between graduating from high school and starting college as a music major at Indiana University, he and the Memphis Guys recorded a #1 R&B hit that crossed over and became a #3 hit on the pop charts.
Jones eventually landed in California. He still recorded as a part of Booker T. and the MG’s, but also played with other people and worked as a producer. Nelson asked Jones to arrange a song, and liked the arrangement so much that he had Jones arrange and produce all ten tracks on “Stardust”.
“One of the reasons Willie had come to me for the album was because of how simply I approach everything. I think he really liked that. We had a lot of space on that record, a lot of time to think about the words and the melody.” –Booker T. Jones in an interview at emusic.com
That simplicity, that space, still stands out 35 years after the album was made. It is as if Nelson and Jones have taken all their great talent and skill, and have decided to use them to open the door to you. They’ve invited you in, won’t you listen to these great songs, won’t you hear them as your own, as ours?
And how can you not? The opening song, “Stardust”, considers the memory of a song. Surely you’ve heard melodies echoing your heartaches, regrets, changes in fortune? They’re here, along with shifts in perspectives that seem nearly holy (“Blue Skies”), light takes on brokenness (“All of Me”), and then there’s “Moonlight in Vermont.”
Robert Christgau from the Village Voice called this number ‘a revelation’, and it is. The guitar begins, and then comes Willie’s voice (they’ve invited us in; we’re on a first name basis now). When he whispers, we lean in, and when he sings in full voice, it sounds like an orchestra, so rich in tone and timbre. Easy as a ripple comes the keyboards, the piano merging perfectly into Booker’s Hammond B-3, and then the strings and piano licks. By the time Willie sings the third verse, the one that begins ‘evening summer breeze’, I’m sitting on a porch and I can’t tell if it’s the wind or the very music itself brushing against my neck. Each bit of instrumentation contributes to the picture of the whole, the passing of seasons, a subtle, unrhymed, impressionistic, haiku-based lyric that doesn’t have to tell us that it’s in love. Through the craftsmanship, through the musicianship, through the space we have been given and the gifts of the hosts, we know it. Intimately.
“Stardust” Track List (original 1978 recording)
1. Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael, Mitchell Parish)
2. Georgia On My Mind (Hoagy Carmichael, Stuart Gorrell)
3. Blue Skies (Irving Berlin)
4. All Of Me (Seymour Simons, Gerald Marks)
5. Unchained Melody (Hy Zaret, Alex North)
6. September Song (Kurt Weill, Maxwell Anderson)
7. On The Sunny Side Of The Street (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh)
8. Moonlight In Vermont (John Blackburn, Karl Suessdorf)
9. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (Duke Ellington, Bob Russell)
10. Someone To Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)