WILLIE NELSON Stardust (Classic) 

This 1978 album is one of those that grips from its opening seconds, the kind of shock discovery you find yourself urging upon friends at every opportunity. The formula is classically simple – a great American singer tackles the great American songbook – but it’s the subtlety of execution that makes “Stardust” so mesmerising. A fluid, understated band includes Flying Burrito Brother Chris Ethridge on bass and soul legend Booker T. Jones on keyboards, production and arrangements, and the string section provides ethereal timbral shading rather than ladling on the usual Nashville syrup. In fact, there’s nothing here to identify “Stardust” as a country album apart from the name on the (fragrant, glossy) cover.

“Unchained Melody” is rescued from the landslide of histrionics it’s usually buried beneath. Willie brings a sense of impish mischief to “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, and makes a winter wonderland out of “Moonlight In Vermont”. Throughout, his singing is relaxed, almost to the point of temporal laziness, always in the vicinity of the beat but hardly ever on top of it.

My appreciation of “Stardust” is assisted no end by the fact that it sounds absolutely gorgeous. It’s all lush, velveteen textures, with the plucked acoustic guitar strings on “Stardust” and “Blue Skies” ricocheting out of the speakers like they could put somebody’s eye out. It’s truly demonstration-worthy stuff, somewhat, but not completely, undermined by the noisiest Classic pressing I’ve yet acquired.

WILLIE NELSON Red Headed Stranger (Columbia/Legacy) 

“Red Headed Stranger” is a country concept album, a Western movie for the ears with a plot involving theft, adultery and murder. It’s actually been remade both as an album (by Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers) and a film (starring Nelson himself). The narrative seamlessly weaves self-penned tunes with country standards from the 1940s and 1950s, presented in sparse but effective arrangements, with repeated musical and lyrical motifs binding the whole conceit together.

Part of Sony’s recent Legacy vinyl campaign, this new reissue is well-presented, recreating the original packaging and including the lyrics on the inner sleeve. The sonics are rather more variable: on the first play, which propagated out to iTunes and my iPod, a horrible serrated distortion marred Nelson’s vocals, but seems to have been largely polished out of subsequent spins. Presuming this to be an aberration, Sony is to be applauded for a relatively serious attempt to bring a classic of its kind back to vinyl.

WILLIE NELSON Shotgun Willie (Rhino) 

According to the upper case-happy cover sticker this 1973 release signalled “a Break with Nashville’s Sound, a Freewheeling Spirited Album That Helped Spark the Outlaw Country Movement”. Recorded in New York, Nashville and Memphis with a diverse guest list that includes The Memphis Horns, Donny Hathaway and Waylon Jennings, it sounds like the veteran’s riposte to the kind of soulful country rock pioneered by The Flying Burrito Brothers.

The title track’s redneck-skewering character studies are almost acerbic enough to be the work of Randy Newman, a deceptive genre-clash that melds the blues’ lyrical form with soulful horn stabs and country rock. “Whiskey River” is one of the album’s more traditionally weepy country interludes, and “Sad Songs And Waltzes” is paradoxically a song about how nobody will get to hear Willie’s song describing how he’s been wronged romantically because the titular genres “aren’t selling this year”. The road-weary “Devil In A Sleepin’ Bag” is possibly the album’s closest approach to outlaw country territory, and the Leon Russell-penned “You Look Like The Devil” its most traditional fare. Another Leon Russell composition “A Song For You” (which kinda fails the authenticity test as soon as a cover version is attempted) finds Willie alone but for an acoustic guitar and a trailerload of echo.

Some Rhino vinyl reissues set definitive standards in the presentation of their material, for example their Vans Morrison and Halen, Faces, James Taylor and Warren Zevon releases. This is one of the other kind, unfortunately. It tries, but the raspy, distorted edge to Willie’s voice – a common complaint with the man’s work on vinyl, admittedly – is a dealbreaker. The thick, pasted-over cardboard sleeve is lovely, though. 

WILLIE NELSON Phases And Stages (Rhino)

So, having conclusively demonstrated that he can do this new-fangled outlaw country stuff standing on his head, for his next trick Willie attempted something even more audacious. Despite a title suggesting some kinda sub-“Ziggy Stardust” glam rock opera, “Phases And Stages” is a country concept album that divides the protagonists of its relationship breakdown storyline right down the middle. Side one is written from the woman’s point of view and side two illustrates the man’s take on the situation. Just in case that wasn’t challenging enough for the Nashville old guard, Nelson recorded the album at Muscle Shoals with producer Jerry Wexler, sensibly employing the services of members of the studio’s legendary rhythm section.

Despite or because of the strictures imposed by the album’s storyline, Nelson’s songwriting is tighter and sharper here than on the previous year’s “Shotgun Willie”, an album that mostly languished in the shadow of its awesome title track. “Phases And Stages” is consistently great – well, excepting parts such as the alcohol-soaked romantic misadventure episode “Bloody Mary Morning” that are even better than that. There are some beautifully observed moments such as the lines, in “Down At The Corner Beer Joint”, “Dancing on the hardwood floor/Her jeans fit a little bit tighter than they did before” that speak volumes about what the female character has gone through since she last had the freedom to wear jeans and dance to rock ‘n’ roll in bars. “(How Will I Know) I’m Falling In Love Again” burrows to the heart of the fear, uncertainty and doubt that underpins the greatest of human experiences. And shot through both sides of the album, “Phases And Stages (Theme)” repeatedly ties the two warring factions together and emphasises the cyclical nature of this age-old tale.

Happily, “Phases And Stages” sounds a bit better than Rhino’s “Shotgun Willie” reissue, with that serrated edge to his voice is far less in evidence.