Willie Nelson: Blue Skies


Blue Skies


Willie Nelson (vocals, guitar)


Stardust (Columbia / Legacy 65946)

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Willie Nelson (vocals, guitar),

Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Bobbie Nelson (piano), Booker T. Jones (organ), Bee Spears or Chris Ethridge (bass), Paul English or Rex Ludwig (drums), Jody Payne (guitar) and strings conducted by Jules Chaiken


Composed by Irving Berlin


Recorded: Southern California, December 12, 1977


Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

So many famous artists have performed this song—Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong Count Basie, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Al Jolson, Art Tatum, and Bing Crosby, among others—yet a quick check of the Amazon charts shows that one version out-sells the rest. I can't imagine many people at Columbia got excited when Willie Nelson decided to record an album of old pop tunes, all but one composed before World War II. Yet the execs clearly celebrated the results: a triple platinum album that spent more than two years on the charts.

There are no frills here. Strings are kept in the background, and if they were mixed in any softer you wouldn't even notice them. When the guitar takes a solo, it simply states Irving Berlin's melody. There's nothing to hold your interest . . . except one big thing. Yes, it's hard to pay attention to anything here except Nelson's raw and compelling voice. I have heard critics tell me that there is no such thing as authenticity in music, and that recordings and performances are all deeply coded cultural constructs, a process in which authenticity can play no part. But I can only surmise that they never heard this particular record, or they wouldn't be saying that. This is the real deal, sung by a veteran of many gigs who puts his heart and soul into the words and melody. A more calculated album would never have had the impact of this one, and Mr. Nelson's success is proportional to his indifference to those same deeply coded constructs.

Shortly after the guitar solo, we get a key change and, toward the end, the tempo is cut in half, which is usually a bad move when recording a pop tune, but by then Nelson has the audience at his beck and call, and wherever he takes them—to F# or the moons of Jupiter—they will come along willingly. Even smug jazz artists, who think they have a special relationship with these old songs, one that outsiders can never match, might learn a thing or two from listening to this milestone performance by the man from Fort Worth.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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