In 2013, Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell gave birth to her first child with husband and bandmate JT Nero, a baby girl named Ida. But as joyous as the occasion was, it came with a level of stress not faced by most young parents. Russell and Nero are touring musicians. To support their new family, they had to return to work that wasn’t exactly conducive to nurturing a newborn. “We went back on the road [with Ida] when she was four weeks old,” Russell recalls, “and we were in all kinds of time zones and … challenging situations. And this record became our lodestar. It was like any time any of us was distressed, we would play the entire Stardust record, and our child would calm down, and we would have this, you know, forty-five minutes … of peace.”

“I’ve listened to this record maybe more than any other record,” she adds. “We kind of grew together as a family listening to this album.”

(Read a transcript of this episode below.)

On this week’s One by Willie, Russell describes how much that experience meant to her in an interview taped in March, backstage, just prior to her performance at Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion music festival. The episode is part of a miniseason of the podcast we are billing as One by Willie: Live From Luck!, four shows featuring artists who played that afternoon on a stage constructed essentially in Willie’s backyard.

For her part, Russell was fresh off three Grammy nominations for her stunning debut solo album, 2021’s Outside Child, and she focused specifically on Stardust’s title cut. Hoagy Carmichael’s 1927 standard is a true touchstone of the Great American Songbook, recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald to John Coltrane to Russell herself. It prompted thoughts from her on what makes for a definitive version of a classic song and how Willie’s subtle rendering of “Stardust” qualifies as that very thing, before she explained why Willie makes her think of Billie Holiday and how much fun Ida—now eight years old—was having running around that day on Willie’s ranch.

We’ve created an Apple Music playlist for this series that we’ll add to with each episode we publish. And if you like the show, please subscribe and drop us a rating on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

One by Willie is produced and engineered by Brian Standefer, with production by Isabella Van Trease and Patrick Michels. The show is produced by Megan Creydt. Graphic design is by Emily Kimbro and Victoria Millner.


Transcript

John Spong (voice-over): Hey there, I’m John Spong with Texas Monthly magazine, and this is One by Willie, a podcast in which I talk each week to one notable Willie Nelson fan about one Willie song that they really love. The show is brought to you by the Boot Barn.

This week, we are kicking off a special, four-episode miniseason of the podcast that we are calling One by Willie: Live From Luck! That’s right, these are interviews taped this past March at Willie’s ranch–slash–golf course–slash–Old West town, with four artists who’d come to play his annual Luck Reunion, and that we recorded in an old Boles Aero camper-trailer that Willie’s great-nephew Joe had tricked out just for these conversations and parked about a hundred yards from the main stage. And if, by chance, you are having a hard time picturing how cool that was, you need to get to the next big show in Luck and check it out for yourself.

This week, we talk with three-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Russell about Willie’s landmark 1978 recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” That song is, of course, the opening track on the album of the same name, which went on to become the biggest seller of Willie’s long career. And it prompts deep thoughts from Allison on the lovingly subtle way Willie honored the beauty in the melody with his singing and his picking, why his vocals make her think of Billie Holiday, and memories of playing the Stardust album nonstop and on repeat for her daughter, Ida, when she was born eight years ago. It was essentially a musical pacifier—and a much-loved component in the life of Allison’s young family.

So let’s do it.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: Well, the song, specifically “Stardust,” that you wanted to talk about—what’s so great about the song? And I was even wondering, what’s so great about the song, or what’s so great about Willie’s version? Where do we start?

Allison Russell: I think it’s both. I think that the song is an extraordinary song. I think that Hoagy Carmichael and Willie are connected as writers. I think that they’re part of—that Willie is part of that Tin Pan Alley, kind of that ethos of writing, of just, you’re not precious about it; you write. You write everything. Hoagy Carmichael wrote every day, but he was also a deeply soulful poet. He had the work ethic, coupled with just inspiration as well, which is rare. Not everybody had—you know, there’s people that are kind of workhorse writers who maybe don’t get those kind of flashes of inspiration. But to me there’s something very—and the way Hoagy Carmichael sings, too. He was a very understated singer. And, you know, maybe, I don’t know what critics thought of him in his day, but I know he was primarily thought of as a songwriter, as opposed to a singer. But he’s one of my favorite singers when he interprets his own oeuvre—I love that the most. Except when Willie does it, and then I love that even more.

John Spong: I’ve spent no time with Hoagy Carmichael’s recordings—sounds like I’ve got to.

Allison Russell: Oh, he’s well worth a listen. And I think they’re very connected. And I don’t know—I’ve never had the opportunity to talk with Willie about his inspirations or influences, but I suspect Hoagy must be one. I don’t know that for sure, but I suspect it. 

John Spong: Oh yeah. So, if I understand, the deal is, you know, he and his sister are growing up in Abbott, Texas, during the Depression, and it’s, you know, dirt farm and Dust Bowl time. And they had church music at the piano, but they had the Hit Parade on the radio. And so—because I always wonder which version of this Willie would’ve heard first. And I bet it was Sinatra’s version, which I think is ’43, maybe, with Tommy Dorsey—or ’40. Which is cool, too, ’cause we should spin it. But one of the neat things about it is, that seems, to me, kind of telling, there’s a—you’ll help me with the term; it’s not an intro—but there are more verses that come first; Willie doesn’t do those.

Allison Russell: Yes. He doesn’t do that.

John Spong: And neither did Sinatra. That’s what he grew up with.

Allison Russell: Yeah, exactly, and it’s so much more powerful. Because I think it was like a de rigueur thing that, back then when Hoagy first wrote it, you had to have this kind of like overture, almost, to the piece, you know, like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” was like, [singing] “Of all the boys I’ve known, and I’ve known some . . .” There’s this whole thing before it, before you actually get into the meat of the song, which is much better, frankly, than the overture part, or whatever you call it. I’m probably using the wrong terminology too.

John Spong: No, but that’s perfect, because actually, we’ve thought about it—Willie, when he drops that out, what he puts in its place is this kind of meditation on the chords that he plays on Trigger—

Allison Russell: And it’s so beautiful.

John Spong: And that’s the invitation to this beautiful album.

Allison Russell: And that’s the soul of the song, to me. And that’s what’s beautiful about this song to me. It’s deceptively simple. There are so many layers of meaning that you can put into it. Is this person that he’s missing, are they dead? It could be a mother; it could be a child; it could be a lover. If you notice it’s not . . . And here we are in times where we’re much more aware of, you know, who’s invited into the story and who isn’t, this is a completely gender-expansive song. You don’t know—it could be anybody. It could be any gender, anything. It’s wide open and it’s universal, but it’s also specific. You know, these—“The nightingale tells its fairytale / Of paradise where roses grew / And though I dream in vain / In my heart there always will remain / My stardust melody / The memory of love’s refrain.” And that love could be . . . you know, that’s like a universal love. Anyone can hear their own love story in that song, whether it’s for your child . . . When I sing it, I sing it as a lullaby for my daughter, because that’s what I associate it with. When I got deeply into this record was right after my daughter was born, and my partner, JT, and I, we’re both musicians; we had been on the road. We went back on the road when she was four weeks old. And we were in all kinds of time zones and situations and challenging situations. And this record became our lodestar. It was like any time any of us was distressed, we would play the entire Stardust record, and our child would calm down, and we would have this, you know, forty-five minutes or fifty minutes, whatever it is, of peace. And that song is the thesis statement for the whole record to me—and I think why he named the record Stardust as well.

John: That sounds like a good introduction to “Stardust” by Willie Nelson.

Allison Russell: Go listen to it!

John Spong: Get it.

Allison Russell: Love it. Feel it.

John Spong: It goes like this.

Allison Russell: Inhabit it; make it your own. Because it is, it’s for everyone. It’s literally for everyone.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

Allison Russell: I mean, honestly, is there . . . It’s the most beautiful, perfect recording. It’s just . . . I always feel it. I always hear new things, and I mean, it’s . . . That, to me, that one recording is what I’m always trying to achieve when I’m recording anything of my own, that I’ve written or that kind of . . . nothing is forced. Nothing is extraneous. There’s no ego involved in the recording of that song.

John Spong: Right. None. I mean, that is all about the song itself.

Allison Russell: Yep. It’s all about the song.

John Spong: I mean, he’s such a hot-shit guitar player. But there’s no fireworks in that regard, for sure.

Allison Russell: And it’s—but it’s so beautiful. The interpretation of the melody just even makes you feel the emotion of the melody more.

John Spong: Tell me about the melody, because one of the things that killed me as I was reading more about this song is that Hoagy Carmichael writes the melody in ’27, and then they need lyrics. And so Mitchell Parish, who I don’t know much about, comes along and writes them. The song is about a song—it’s about the melody. And I wonder if he was just so struck by that melody.

Allison Russell: Beauty. It’s such a beautiful melody.

John Spong: He was like, “The lyrics will be about this song itself.”

Allison Russell: Yeah, about this song. About music.

John Spong: Because it’s not about a song in general; it’s actually about this, isn’t it?

Allison Russell: Yeah. A love song. And that song—and it could be people will interpret it differently, but you’re right. I think that Mitchell Parish was clearly so moved by the melody. I mean, it is, there are melodies that are lyrical. There are melodies that tell stories, and this is one of them. And there are many stories that it could inhabit, or that you could, you know, place yourself within it. And that’s, to me, that’s just the sign of a timeless, universal melody. And I—you know, it’s funny, I never touch the English lyrics of this song, because I feel like Willie delivered them in such a way that nobody needs to ever hear me do it. But I do occasionally cover this song in French, because the French lyrics, I think, are very beautiful too, and also, I think, do justice to Hoagy’s melody. But I don’t sing this song in English specifically because of Willie’s version. I just don’t want to hear me singing it. 

John Spong: Willie owns it anyways, which is striking.

Allison Russell: Yes. I really feel that way about it. Certain songs you just, I don’t want to mess with.

John Spong: Well, if anybody needs, it’s on the EP that you made with one of your earlier groups, Birds of Chicago, and it’s called American Flowers, and it is breathtaking. And it sounds a little—there’s so many different versions of it, and you could have been inspired by any number of them—but it sounds kind of close to the way Willie did it, actually.

Allison Russell: Yeah. It’s definitely inspired by Willie, and, you know, it’s different, and Steve Dawson, who’s playing guitar with me, is a very different guitar player than Willie, and all of that, but it’s—that was definitely the inspiration to cover it at all, was just how much I loved it. And then I thought, well, if I do it in French, maybe it’s okay. [Laughs] Maybe it’s okay.

[Birds of Chicago playing “Stardust”]

John Spong: When you talked . . . you called it the definitive—at least, the definitive English version. What makes something definitive, and what other . . . the two questions might not be related enough. Maybe they’re two questions, but I wonder what other vocalists or artists you think of that interpret the American Songbook . . . nobody’s going to do it the same as Willie, but are there vocalists that he makes you think of, kind of?

Allison Russell: In my mind, and I know this is not immediately obvious, but Willie and Billie Holiday are connected in my mind. Very, very deeply connected in my mind. And they are similar in a strange way, I think, in that they’re each—they’re similar only in that they’re each utterly unique. You never mistake them for anyone else. And the way that they interpret a melody, and the way that they can be almost out of time with the melody and it’s perfect, somehow . . . There’s a kind of a—and I guess that’s what I mean. There’s a—when I say definitive, I suppose that’s what I mean: When you listen to it, you are not, there is no part of your brain that’s being a music critic. There is no part of your brain that’s like, “Oh, I wish they had done this a little differently,” or “I would’ve done that differently.” You don’t listen to Billie Holiday and say, “I would’ve sung that differently.” You listen to Billie Holiday and cry. You listen to Willie Nelson and cry. That’s what you do. You’re just in . . . you’re in the feeling, because there’s nothing within . . . The way that they interpret something feels like it has always been that way. And it always will be that way, and I always want to hear it that way. And that is such a rare thing, I think.

And that is not to detract from other singers. There are many beautiful singers, and of course it’s subjective. But there are certain, to me, sort of iconic voices that—and they’re not perfect voices. They’re not—I’m sure each of them, and I know Willie certainly was, was told “You’re not a good enough singer, blah, blah, blah,” to be a lead. And I can only imagine the kinds of nonsense that Billie Holiday had to deal with throughout her career—I know some of it. But they, to me, are timeless, timeless, definitive interpreters of the American Songbook. And nobody can touch them, really. And it’s not that it’s a competition. It’s just that there’s no room for—you never listen to those recordings and say, “This should have been done differently.”

John Spong: Right. And it’s taste, too.

Allison Russell: Totally distinctive, totally unique.

John Spong: You know, because, like, Ella nails all that stuff. And sometimes that’s actually what I need. But—

Allison Russell: Yes. And she has this very extraordinarily, sort of perfect-sounding vehicle in her voice. And she’s incredible. I’m not . . . Not to detract from Ella, but to me, Willie and Billie Holiday live in a similar space of voices that might have been heard as imperfect in some way, or limited in some way, that . . . but within those limit—the perfection exists within the limitation, and within the interpretation, and within the use of space, and the space between the notes, and how intentional all of that is.

John Spong: I can’t imagine Willie thinks of any of this consciously, but I’ve always thought that when I’m listening . . . And I really came to this idea listening to this record. Everybody always talks about him singing behind the beat. And maybe that makes it swing or whatever the term would be. With him, with this stuff, anticipation builds. Somewhere in your subconscious, you’re going, “Is he reluctant to say this, or is it too painful to say this? Where are, where are his words?” And then when they finally come, it’s just got a different weight.

Allison Russell: They have so much weight. Exactly. Yeah. I think you’re right. And the thing about this record—and I’ve listened to this record maybe more than any other record, because our daughter, it was what would soothe her when we were on the road. You know, for three months—they call that the fourth trimester, that first three months out the womb. And they’re really not finished gestating. They’re just gestating on the outside. And it was . . . we kind of grew together as a family listening to this album, and it was a comforting space that we could inhabit when we were in uncomfortable situations. On a seven-hour flight to the Netherlands, on a, you know, whatever it was with a four-week old. The various wild, ill-advised things that we did. So, you know, this record was our companion and soothed our entire family. So I’m deep in with this record. Yeah.

John Spong: Well, how do you find Willie? Because you grew up in Montreal. And you grew up in the eighties and the nineties. Who is Willie Nelson to clearly a musically inclined young person, but is he just some dude on the radio, or . . . ?

Allison Russell: So I did not know Willie growing up. And I grew up sort of under a rock, musically speaking, because I had a real abusive adoptive father, and he was a tyrant about music, and basically anything that was after the Baroque period was kind of not on, according to him. So there was very, I had very little exposure to modern music or popular music at all. I had some because of the jazz fest. And so, actually, that’s probably my first exposure to Willie, I’m pretty sure came at a Montreal jazz fest, where someone was covering one of his songs. And definitely my first exposure to Hoagy Carmichael was hearing an Oscar Peterson interpretation, of, I can’t remember which song now . . . I should remember that, but I don’t. But I got to hear Oscar Peterson play for free in the park, because I grew up in Montreal in the eighties and nineties.

So, and Jazz Fest, our Montreal jazz fest is definitely, I think, similar to the New Orleans jazz fest, and a really amazing world-class, international event. And I got to hear people like Salif Keita and Oumou Sangaré, and—just for free, you know, was playing at Jazz Fest. And I didn’t, on one hand, know how extraordinary that was, because I had no experience to compare it to. But those were reformative experiences and artists. But when I consciously became aware of Willie was through my aunt, Janet Lillian Russell, who’s a songwriter. And she played me—was the first person to play me various Willie Nelson songs. And she interprets them as well.

John Spong: Oh, interesting.

Allison Russell: She’s covered a lot of Willie in her time.

John Spong: Huh. Well, so I wonder, I mean, “Crazy” would be an obvious candidate, I guess, or “Funny How Time Slips Away,” or some of that stuff.

Allison Russell: Yes. Yes. Definitely, she played me that. Of course, I heard Patsy Cline’s interpretations, and . . . But I slowly became aware of Willie as a writer, and then, later, Willie as a singer. And my favorite is Willie as a singer.

John Spong: Really?

Allison Russell: Yeah. I think so. But, well, both. I mean, he’s . . . As you say, both, but I love him interpreting his own songs, and I love him interpreting other people’s songs.

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong: Have you seen him play before?

Allison Russell: I got to hear him at Farm Aid live for the first time this summer past. And we got to play our first Farm Aid with my Allison Russell: Outside Child project. And we got to sing onstage with Willie and his family, Margo Price and I, and Nathaniel Rateliff. We were doing BG’s for them in the corner. It was like, “I can’t believe we get to do this!”

John Spong: It’s got nothing to do with anything, but what Bee Gees?

Allison Russell: Incredible. It was incredible.

John Spong: I mean, I like the Bee Gees almost as much as Willie! What did you do?

Allison Russell: Oh, no, sorry. I just mean background vocals. Oh, not actual Bee Gees. I’m so sorry. Not actual Barry Gibb. No.

John Spong: Oh, okay, okay. Did you do “How [Can] You Mend a Broken Heart” with Willie?

Allison Russell: I know! That would’ve been amazing. Yeah. But maybe we’ll suggest that—we’ll suggest, be like, “Hey Willie, what about we do this?”

John Spong: Tonight! Tonight! You’re here! You’re in Luck! Anything can happen! You’re in Luck!

Allison Russell: Oh, I’ve been feeling so . . . I’ve been mourning for their family with the loss of Bobbie. I was just so devastated to hear that news, and yeah, just anyway, love to the whole Nelson family. And I’m so sorry for the loss of—well, not that she’s lost, because she’s eternal, and her music and her contributions to the music are eternal, and the love is eternal. I don’t—I’m a hopeful agnostic that’s confused all the time. But I do believe love never dies. So I know that she generated and gave a great, great deal of love, and that’s not going to go anywhere.

John Spong: I’ve thought about what that relationship must be like.

Allison Russell: Yeah. Eighty-eight years!

John Spong: Dude. Yeah.

Allison Russell: Eighty-eight years together.

John Spong: The first time I interviewed Willie, I was an intern. You know, I had no business being on the bus. It was like ’93 or something. And nobody’s going to ask him a question he hasn’t heard before. And what could be more boring? Especially, I was an intern. And I said, “So why’d you move to Austin?” I wonder if anybody’s asked that before? And his answer—he looked at me. He said, “Because my sister lived here.” No follow-up. I mean, it was clear there wasn’t supposed to be one. But that, nobody really ever thinks about that. He moved here because his sister lived here. When they were kids and life was so hard, their happiness was at the piano. I thought about that with you. I mean, I’ve read about you. I know how—I’ve listened to Outside Child. I have no idea how awful that was, because I know the little that I do, but . . . what they had was music. Everything would be hard all day long until they sat at the piano together. And so—

Allison Russell: That was joyful.

John Spong: All the difficult times for Willie in the sixties, that’s ’cause Bobbie wasn’t in the band, man. They get together in the seventies, and he becomes Willie. And so, last week, she died, and . . .

Allison Russell: I can’t even imagine. I can’t even imagine what . . . Because there’s no—very few life relationships of any kind last for eighty-eight years like that. Particularly a deep, deep, deep, spiritual musical connection like that. That’s rare. It’s just rare, period. You know? And to share that with a sibling makes it even more just precious and—yeah. And his kids have that now with each other too, which is amazing. I was really struck by that at Farm Aid, hearing Micah and Lukas playing together, playing individually, playing with their dad, and how beautiful that was. I just thought it was really . . . and it wasn’t, you know, there’s family bands where it feels like sort of a stunt or gimmick.

John Spong: Or somebody’s being made to do it.

Allison Russell: Or the children are being forced to do this thing that they obviously do not want to do. And this was the opposite, where it’s just like these are people who love each other and who love music, who worship the muse equally—all of them in their own ways, and they’re all very individual.

John Spong: There’s the bond.

Allison Russell: There’s the deep bond and connection there, that strong respect for the muse that is just palpable.

John Spong: We had a conversation like this with one of Willie’s daughters, Paula, recently, and Paula’s about my age. And so she went with Willie—somebody prompted me to ask her about this—she went with her dad to the recording of “We Are the World.”

Allison Russell: Oh my gosh.

John Spong: And she was—

Allison Russell: How old was she?

John Spong: Fifteen.

Allison Russell: Oh my gosh.

John Spong: And she was talking about, “There’s Cyndi Lauper. And there’s Michael Jackson,” and all this kind of stuff. And I was like, “Wait a minute. Did anybody else bring their kids? Were there other kids there?” She said, “No, just Dad.”

Allison Russell: So beautiful.

John Spong: I started thinking, “Well, that’s country.” I mean . . .

Allison Russell: I love that so much.

John Spong: That’s all that matters to him. All that matters to him is family and music. And so here we are in Luck, and we’re . . .

Allison Russell: And he’s like, “My daughter’s going to love hearing Cindy Lauper live. She’s going to love that. She should come.” Yeah. And that’s what I mean. And I really—you look for mentors in all kinds of ways, and you don’t have to personally know your mentors for them to be mentors. And the way he runs his business and never compromises family, that’s something that I aspire to as I build our life in art and our family within that.

John Spong: Your chosen family, is how you call it.

Allison Russell: Our chosen family. Yeah. And our daughter—you know, our daughter has grown up on the road with us. She’s here. She’s having the best time. She went to visit the horses. She’s like, “I’m going to sing today.” She tells me when she’s going to sing. She’s decided Luck is worthy of being graced with her presence, onstage.

John Spong: That is awesome. That is awesome.

Allison Russell: Yeah. Yeah.

John Spong: Well, gosh, I’ll stop now before I say something to ruin how perfect this is. Thanks, Willie. And thanks to you.

Allison Russell: Thank you, Willie.

John Spong: And thanks, Ida. I mean, this is going to be a great day.

Allison Russell: We’re so happy to be here. So grateful. Thank you for having me on and letting me nerd out about “Stardust” with you. 

[Willie Nelson singing “Stardust”]

John Spong (voice-over): All right, Willie fans. That was Allison Russell talking about “Stardust.” A huge thanks to her for coming on the show, a big thanks to our sponsor, the Boot Barn, and a big thanks to you for tuning in. If you dig the show, please subscribe, maybe tell a couple friends, and visit our page at Apple Podcasts and give us some stars. Please also check out our One by Willie playlist over at Apple Music.

Tune in in two weeks—that’s right, not one week, but two—to hear budding country star Charley Crockett talk about another of Willie’s old Pamper demos, “Face of a Fighter,” on One by Willie: Live From Luck! See y’all in a couple weeks.