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Red Headed Stranger
Willie Nelson

Columbia 33482
Released: July 1975
Chart Peak: #28
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified 2x Platinum: 11/21/86

Willie NelsonWhen Teddy Roosevelt claimed loneliness is a quintessential ingredient of our national character, he hit the psychic bull's-eye, ringing up images of pragmatic pioneers, existential outlaws and a long line of heroes who dreamt of the purity of their youth even as they drew their guns to eliminate it. "There are no second acts in American lives," someone once said, and a cursory glance at our gods -- the cowboy/desperado, the gangster/detective, the movie star/rock & roller -- whose lifestyles generally suggest either early and unnatural death or obsolescence, easily reinforces such a statement. To the quiet American, violence, like the perpetual but unreal motion of life on the road, seems to serve as solicitous coin in the realm of the solitary survivor, some kind of necessary stop-gap and occupation while a man waits in the sanctified state of loneliness for something to happen, someone to come along or return, his vague search to end.

From Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to Dirty Harry Callahan, the mythic American hero is a man, almost always womanless, who has somehow been trapped in that curious nether world between comic innocence and tragic experience; unable or unwilling to make a choice, he can at best (or worst) embrace either adjective, neither noun. He has known happiness once, lost it, and now nothing will help. for the sentimental there is Christianity, the "official" solace, itself an uncanny mixture of loneliness and death, its hero a lost and forsaken son slain only to rise again with the promise of a glorious but distant new childhood in exchange for a worn out, hopeless past. It is small wonder that most Americans worship no god except their own lost innocence, have had, in fact, to rely on popular literature, films and music to provide plausible and workable archetypal "religion," that is more Jungian and Freudian.

Willie Nelson - Red Headed Stranger
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Veteran country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson knows all of this -- and much more. His Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled. A phonographic Western movie which brilliantly evokes the mythopoeic imagery of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shane and the works of John Ford, the album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable and not unwarranted synthesis of all he has missed. The narrative may not sound especially promising or unusual -- like most fables, it is, after all, the same old story: "That is its point -- but in Nelson's hands, its hard-won simplicity calls forth the same complex and profound metaphysical responses as those brought about by the matter-of-fact awesomeness of the Rocky Mountains. Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to creat a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental. That he did not write much of the material makes his accomplishment no less singular.

Red Headed Stranger, not unlike Dylan's much underrated Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, is concerned with great universals; its heroic songs, somewhat reminiscent in mood of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and the magnificent instrumental anthems (particularly "Final Theme") of the latter album, seem both vulnerable and inevitable, strapped to the lifeline, equally suitable for weddings or funerals. "It was a time of the Preacher," Stranger begins, and with this life-and-death invocation, the once Edenic West becomes a land populated by fallen innocents ("My eyes filled with tears and I must have aged ten years/ I couldn't believe it was true") who deal out Biblical revenge ("Now the lesson is over and the killin's begun") less in anger than in a state of agonized confusion:
Don't cross him, don't boss him
He's wild in his sorrow
Ridin' and hidin' his pain
Don't fight him, don't spite him
Just wait till tomorrow
Maybe he'll ride on again.

When the killing comes, it is quick, hypnotic and terrible in its finality ("And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door/ And they died with their smiles on their faces"), the belligerent bullets almost an afterthought, transient, symptomatic explosions in a field of loneliness ("He bought her a drink and gave her some money/ He just didn't seem to care/... He shot her so quickly they had no time to warn her"). The stranger has reached the penultimate point in his journey, but with omniscient irony the century rolls on:

It was the time of the preacher
In the year of '01
And just when you think it's all over
It's only begun.

On side two, cyclic catharsis begins, its inception again ironic. The wanderer enters a tavern, is drawn to a woman, but this time the lovers dance "with their smiles on their faces." "Can I sleep in your arms tonight, lady?" the cowboy asks, adding "I assure you I'll do you no harm." Life's verities seem ambiguous ("It's the same old song -- it's right and it's wrong/ And livin' is just something I do") as the hero ages. Stranger ends with an image reminiscent of the final tableau of Bergman's Wild Strawberries: Time, memory and expectations have magically fused, transitory people have somehow become luminous legends, happiness has been found.

And in the shade of an oak down by the river
Sat an old man and a boy
Settin' sails, spinnin' tales and fishin' for whales
With a lady they both enjoy.

I can't remember when a record has taken such a hold on me.

- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 8/28/75.

Bonus Reviews!

Sneaking is a good way to be in music, and Willie Nelson, unofficial father figure of the Texas underground, knows how to sneak; he has in Red Headed Stranger for Columbia, combined old, new, borrowed, and blue elements to make himself a horse opera about love and death in the late-early Western United States. It's an adult western, set in 1901, and although it purports to make no large statement about the passing of the frontier for our still westering society, it does suggest how one wild-spirited, trigger-happy fellow accommodated himself to civilized ways. The story line, though, isn't terribly strong or important, and it's really a story, not an "opera," the whole thing related by the narrator, Willie, who looks, according to the drawings (a story board, no less) on the back of the jacket, just like the hero. Nelson has taken old, familiar songs such as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "Remember Me" and used them as set pieces in his story, and they do an interesting job of helping authenticate the dating of the yarn.

The new music is well written and at times brilliantly sung, although you may be shocked at first to find the instrumentation so spare. Nelson has, as Bob Wills did, that kind of Texas-country ear that has a lot of pop in it (early songs like "Crazy" had a clicking sophistication that reminded some people of Duke Ellington), and when he combines that trait with the kind of discipline he uses here in the interests of simplicity and a narrative line... well, the result is a sense of much energy under meticulous control. Add to that a voice with textures almost as engrossing as those of Bryce Canyon, and you have an album to be taken almost one note at a time. The more times I listen, the more I find in it. Sneaky album.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 12/75.

This might be called a concept album, or even a message album. Frankly, we haven't figured it out yet. But it's Willie Nelson, and it's listenable, and it includes some old favorites. He begins with his "Time of the Preacher," then segues into an old Eddy Arnold/Walty Fowler tune, back to the "Preacher," a medley of the title song and "Blue Rock Montana," then a Fred Rose favorite, then back to the "Red Headed Stranger," back to the "Preacher," a religious instrumental, a song called "Denver," a couple old instrumentals including a waltz and "Down Yonder," then the Hank Cochran song written for Jeannie Seeley, and an old T. Texas Tyler tune. Now it's all good, but we lost the continuity somewhere.

- Billboard, 1975.

When this album came out I compared it -- favorably -- to the Bible. Nelson surpassed himself with this masterpiece. It's all been downhill for him since, but who wouldn't mind having done what I still think is the only "concept" album in popular music that has worked?

- Chet Flippo, Rolling Stone, 12/15/77.

This tale of a murdering preacher wild in his abandonment has inspired much loose talk about violence and Western myth. Ed Ward argues that the Stranger is a fantasy of vengeance rejected on side two, but all I hear is that he's redeemed by another woman there -- if she leaves him, he'll kill her too. Some of the individual pieces are quite nice, but the gestalt is the concept album at its most counterproductive -- the lyrics render the nostalgic instrumental parts unnecessarily ironic and lose additional charm in narrative context. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Recorded in Texas, Nelson's sparsely produced concept album about the old West subverted the old ways in Nashville and made country converts of hippies everywhere. In fact, it did more than that, as "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" became one of the unlikeliest Top 40 hits in pop music history.

- Dan Cooper, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Fire one up and listen as this laid-back cowboy spins a remarkable, threadbare tale of love, loss and murder on a true concept album about a preacher who kills his wife and goes on the run. Supporters spread the gospel that it's just a quintessential outlaw recording but perhaps the greatest country album ever with a spare style that changed the way C&W was played. Considered daring in '75, it's as real as it comes today. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Newly signed to Columbia, Nelson was feeling ambitious. "It was the first time I had 'artistic control,'" he recalled. "So I thought I would just start writing." Nelson had penned the song "Red Headed Stranger" years before; on a drive back to Austin after a Colorado ski trip, he fleshed out the yarn -- his wife, Connie, writing down the lyrics as they came out of his mouth. He kept the arrangements extremely spare, in sharp contrast to the gussied-up music coming out of Nashville at the time. The songs locked together to tell a tale of murder and infidelity, and the concept album became one of Nashville's biggest hits.

Read Headed Stranger was chosen as the 184th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

While Nelson had enjoyed considerable success as a songwriter, penning such country staples as "Crazy," "Family Bible" and "Hello, Walls," he was still starved of recognition as a recording artist. This all changed in 1975 with the release of Red Headed Stranger. As one of the leading voices of the Outlaw movement, he took that group's ethos of independent self-determination in recording to produce an album of sparse acoustic songs in a manner that would perhaps now be termed "Unplugged."

Red Headed Stranger achieved critical and commercial success, the album becoming Nelson's biggest seller so far and scoring his first country Number One with "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," also acknowledged in that year's Grammy awards as the Best Country Vocal Performance (Male).

Not only did the album enable Nelson to find his own artistic voice, he also raised the bar for country music, giving the genre a voice that could be heard beyond the hitherto back-waters of Nashville.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

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Jennings, Willie Nelson,
Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser

Article: "Willie Nelson's
80th Birthday"

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As of 2004, Red Headed Stranger was the #95 best-selling album of the 70s.

- Hamish Champ, The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the 70s, 2004.

By 1975, Willie Nelson had released some very fine albums, and he had penned great country songs for other artists, including Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Faron Young's "Hello Walls." But it was Red Headed Stranger that made Nelson a country superstar.

Executives at his new label, Columbia, were understandably nervous about the LP's prospects. At a time when hit country records were lush with strings, the instrumentation of Stranger was simple -- acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. It was also something of a formal experiment, a loose concept album about a lovelorn murderer's adventures. Nelson used the narrative of the Old West to stitch together his own tunes and a handful of covers while, on the back of the sleeve, Monica White drew a series of striking cartoon panels that told the story, sort of.

The suits at Columbia need not have worried. The album sold enormously and yielded his first No. 1 single, a quietly intense version of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain," an old Fred Rose song that became one of Nelson's signature tunes. Moreover, Red Headed Stranger came out just months before RCA, Nelson's old label, released Wanted! The Outlaws, a compilation of music by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and others that gave its name to an important back-to-basics movement. The significance of Outlaw country remains a subject of debate, but it's certainly the case that with Red Headed Stranger, Nelson released an album that shrugged off the strictures of Nashville. It also defined a career.

- Kenneth Burns, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

When Columbia Records signed Willie Nelson in 1974, the label thought it was in business with a proven commercial-country hit-maker, the author of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Faron Young's "Hello Walls." The executives had no idea this restless spirit, then associated with the ascendant "outlaw" wing of country, would immediately take advantage of the terms of his contract: As Nelson recalled, "It was the first time that I had quote artistic control end quote." His response: a twisted tale of a troubled preacher who murders his wife and her new lover, then hits the road.

The songs are short, seemingly disconnected drifter laments arranged into a ragtag travelogue. Often a single guitar provides the only accompaniment to Nelson's grandfatherly warble, and the "story" sometimes gets lost inside the character sketches. In the liner notes of the 2000 expanded edition, Nelson remembers the label as being "shocked" by this unconventional album, and then-president Bruce Lundvall concurs. At the time, Lundvall told label staffers "it may not be an important commercial album by Willie" but predicted it would become a significant part of the singer and songwriter's legacy.

Red Headed Stranger confounded those sales projections. It sold three million copies and established Nelson as a uniquely uncompromising crossover figure in country music, one of the few capable of massaging its enduring myths into newly compelling naratives. The album's interpretations of vintage songs sparkle like gold dust, while Nelson's connective-tissue originals, particularly "Time of the Preacher," update Hank Williams with a shot of wry. The expanded edition includes four eyebrow-raising tracks, including a dusty cover of Williams's "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" and Nelson's reworking of Bach's Minuet in G as, of all things, a ragged country waltz. Why this bit of delirium was snipped from the original remains a mystery.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

Written on a drive home from a Colorado ski trip, the title track set the tone for a riveting, heartfelt multitrack tale of murder and infidelity. The spare sound was a sharp contrast to the gussied-up country of the time, but it still became one of Nelson's biggest records.

Red Headed Stranger was chosen as the 237th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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