Amazon Prime streaming brought me Bob Dylan’s latest songbook, Fallen Angels. I flashed immediately to 1978 and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. I don’t know if Willie’s was the first cross-over standards treatment, but it was my first.
Willie and Dylan (funny how I think of them, firstName, lastName) both come from the tortured-not-pretty-voice side of musical stardom. Both have deep roots as songwriters. In Americana. And on the surface there would seem to be little similarity between the Jewish boy from Minnesota and the older, Depression-era son of Texas.
Willie’s Red-Headed Stranger (1975) began tugging me back to the music of my childhood, country and gospel. I thought I’d escaped the legacy of Hank Williams and The Statler Brothers. My turntable featured The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Elton John, The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers, Harry Chapin, Doctor John, Carly Simon, Led Zeppelin.
And yet Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (1947) remains one of my all-time favorites.
When my dad died in December, I realized that he was only five years older than Willie.
But Stardust, Stardust is possibly my favorite Willie Nelson album. I was not alone in my appreciation. Stardust was on the Billboard Country Album chart for 10 years.
But beyond his musical magnetism, Nelson deals in a comfortably democratic, fully American kind of populism almost totally lacking in mainstream pop culture today, country or otherwise. He’s a legend and all that, but that pompous designation doesn’t really get at his appeal. Punkoids with mohawks, yuppies with ponytails, and spaced-out hippies alike shed their self-consciousness. The mood was unlike any show this size that I’ve ever seen. Under a bombastic Lone Star banner, this Kucinich supporter embodied what it really means to be a uniter, not a divider. He closed with a new song, a 12-bar rocker that kicked off with the lines “Too many pain pills, too much pot/ Trying to be something that I’m not/ I’m not Superman.”
But here they are, Willie and Dylan, in 1993. Performing Pancho and Lefty.
Unlike Stardust, which was Willie performing some of his favorite standards, Dylan continues to channel Frank Sinatra, as he did on his prior release Shadows in the Night.
Turns out that my immediately thinking of Stardust shouldn’t be a surprise.
From that pre-release interview (he did only one):
I’ve been thinking about [making this record] ever since I heard Willie [Nelson]’s Stardust record in the late 1970s. All through the years, I’ve heard these songs being recorded by other people and I’ve always wanted to do that. And I wondered if anybody else saw it the way I did.
I was a little stunned to learn that this man who is almost 15 years older than me and from the mid-west listened to the Grand Ole Opry while growing up! And The Staple Singers (gospel cross-over). Those powerful radio stations had quite an influence, didn’t they?
The first thing I noticed with Fallen Angels was the electric steel guitar (Young at Heart).
[Fallen Angels] arrangements recall a time and place that never existed—a mythical dive halfway between a resurrected smoky East Village club and, when drooping pedal steel figures dominate the action, a Texas barroom. When creaky cellos and horn soloists crop up, Tom Waits’ more muted ’00s output comes to mind.
The tempo of Fallen Angels is slow. At times almost ponderous. Dylan’s voice, in the main, is simpatico with the arrangements. From The Independent:
Dylan copes remarkably well for one so routinely criticised as a vocalist. Even when he strains to keep in key or pitch, he manages to make a virtue of his shortcomings, bringing a sense of long-distance exhaustion to “All The Way”, and applying a sort of Gallic shrug to “All Or Nothing At All”, in stark contrast to the jauntier tone of Frank Sinatra’s and Billie Holiday’s interpretations.
And finally, Rolling Stone:
His phrasing remains spectacular, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious, and the playing is sublime…Songs date mostly to the ’40s and ’50s, with a spotlight on rhyme animal lyricist Johnny Mercer.
Definitely worth a listen, you Amazon Primer’s. I doubt that I’ll open my wallet (so to speak) but I have added the album to my Amazon Prime Library. I’m guessing that with additional listens I will warm to it even more. Because, standards.
- Young at Heart (1953), music by Johnny Richards with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
- Maybe You’ll Be There (1947), music by Rube Bloom with lyrics by Sammy Gallop
- Polka Dots and Moonbeams (1940), music by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Burke
- All the Way (1957), music by Jimmy Van Heusen with lyrics by Sammy Cahn
- Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Johnny Mercer [not recorded by Sinatra]
- Nevertheless (1931), music by Harry Ruby with lyrics by Bert Kalmar
- All or Nothing at All (1939), music by Arthur Altman with lyrics by Jack Lawrence
- On a Little Street in Singapore (1939), music by Peter De Rose with lyrics by Billy Hill
- It Had To Be You (1924), music by Isham Jones with lyrics by Gus Kahn
- Melancholy Mood (1939), music by Walter Schumann with lyrics by Vick R. Knight, Sr.
- That Old Black Magic (1942), music by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer
- Come Rain or Come Shine (1946), music by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer
- Stardust (1927), music by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Mitchell Parish
- Georgia on My Mind (1930), music by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Stuart Gorrell
- Blue Skies (1916), music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
- All of Me (1931), music and lyrics by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons
- Unchained Melody (1955), music by Alex North with lyrics by Hy Zaret
- September Song (1938), music by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Maxwell Anderson
- On the Sunny Side of the Street (1930), music by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Dorothy Fields
- Moonlight in Vermont (1944), music by Karl Suessdorf with lyrics by John Blackburn
- Don’t Get Around Much Anymore (1940, 1942), music by Duke Ellington with lyrics by Bob Russell.
- Someone To Watch Over Me (1926), music by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin