Willie Nelson didn't get labeled an outlaw for nothing.
Having turned his back on the Nashville-based country music establishment that tried to reign him in as a performer in the 1960s, Nelson hit his stride in the 1970s with a series of singles and albums made pretty much exactly the way he wanted them made.
FOR THE RECORD:
Willie Nelson's "Stardust": An article in the Aug. 9 Calendar section about Willie Nelson's Hollywood Bowl performances of his 1978 album "Stardust" misspelled the surname of composer Richard Rodgers as Rogers. Also, the story said that Nelson's single with Waylon Jennings "Good Hearted Woman" reached the top spot on the country singles chart in 1975. The record entered that chart in 1975 but did not reach No. 1 until 1976. —
But that was hardly the end of the story for his idiosyncratic ways. After scoring his first No. 1 country hit as a performer in 1975 with "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and returning to the top spot on the country chart that year in tandem with Waylon Jennings with "Good Hearted Woman," Nelson helped usher in a new era of maverick country music.
And then what did he do? Turned around in 1978 and gave his record company an album of songs mostly written before World War II, songs that had little or nothing to do with what most people identified as country music.
"They looked stunned for a while," Nelson, who turned 80 in April, said with a chuckle from a tour stop in San Diego on Wednesday. "It was funny, but they didn't hear it right off like I was hearing it. But I knew these were songs that a lot of young people had never heard in those days. There's still a lot of young people who haven't heard them."
He's referring to "Stardust," a collection that predated the glut of albums by contemporary pop musicians' interpreting material from the Great American Songbook, a trove populated with compositions by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart and many others.
Those stunned record company executives, however, began to smile after Nelson charted not one but two No. 1 hits from "Stardust": his version of Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" and Berlin's "Blue Skies." A third single, Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons' "All of Me," got as high as No. 3 on the Billboard country chart in 1978.
"I knew that it would be good," Nelson said nonchalantly, a judgment that proved accurate after it was certified five times platinum, for sales of more than 5 million copies, making it one of the biggest sellers, if not the biggest, of Nelson's long career. "I had been wanting to do the album for a long time, but I was waiting until I found somebody who could write the arrangements."
That, in another surprising turn, happened to be R&B-soul-rock organist Booker T. Jones, namesake of the '60s R&B-soul instrumental group Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
"I was living in an apartment underneath him when he and Priscilla were living in L.A.," Nelson said. "I talked to him about it, he thought it was a great idea, so I wrote out a list of my nine favorite songs of all time. I was thinking about a 10th one, and he said, 'How about 'Someone to Watch Over Me'? So I picked nine, and he came up with the 10th."
On Friday and Saturday, for what Nelson believes is the first time in his career, he'll perform the "Stardust" album in its entirety, at the Hollywood Bowl. In place of the spare backing on the album he got from Jones and a few members of his own band, he'll be accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, with new string arrangements created by David Campbell, known to music fans of a certain age as Beck's father.
"He did 'The Healing Hands of Time' album with us [in 1994]," Nelson said, "and since then we've done a couple of live shows around and they've worked out very well."
When the album was released, Nelson cited John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf's "Moonlight in Vermont" as his favorite song of all time. Has that changed in the intervening 35 years?
"No, it's still my favorite song," said the man who's written hundreds of songs himself and is one of the most prolific and respected songwriters in all of popular music. "There's not one line that rhymes. It's all prose. But it's got the most beautiful melody, and the lyrics are incredible."
Along with the "Stardust" material, Nelson and his Family band will course through his considerable catalog for the Bowl shows, and he vowed to include such standards as "Whiskey River," "Shotgun Willie" and "On the Road Again."
Having performed another classic album of his, 1975's "Red Headed Stranger," from beginning to end shortly after it was first released, as well as his 1996 album "Spirit," Nelson said he might consider doing others down the line.
One candidate: commercially overlooked but critically admired concept album "Phases and Stages," originally recorded in 1964 but not released until 1974. "I like that album a lot," he said.
First, however, he'll be putting energy into promoting his latest release, "To All the Girls…," slated for Sept. 24 release. It features Nelson in duets with 18 female singers, including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert.
"I also did a song with Barbra Streisand," he noted. "For 20 years I've been saying I'd like to do a song with Barbra Streisand. She evidently heard about it, had a song written for her and I to sing, recorded her part and sent it to Austin, and I put my part on it and now it's a finished product. Not sure exactly what she wants to do with it, whether she just wants to put it on the duets album or just sit home and listen to it, I don't know."
Willie Nelson & Family
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 1901 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Price: $21.50 to $124
Information: (323) 850-2000; http://www.hollywoodbowl.com