Desert Island Discs: “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson (1975)

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Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” perhaps is the strangest blockbuster country produced, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his departed wife and her new lover, told entirely with brief song-poems and utterly minimal backing. It’s defiantly anticommercial and it demands intense concentration — all reasons why nobody thought it would be a hit. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic

I’ve quoted someone before about how country music seems to endure a vicious cycle of having its authenticity tainted by commercial compromise; dumbed down and lamed up, like it seems to be today. Then its authenticity is redeemed, however fleetingly, by an “underground” roots movement. This is exactly what happened with the “outlaw country” movement, which led to the release of one of the best albums of any genre in the 70s: Willie Nelson’s 1975 release “Red Headed Stranger.”

It’s been called the “Sgt. Pepper” of country music. It’s a minimalist, stripped-down, unified “concept album,” a blend of disparate styles, evocative originals, and classic songs from country’s past. It’s a story of heartbreak, betrayal, savagery, repentance, and redemption, with deep emotions coming through in every vocal, every instrumental. It’s nothing short of a miracle that this album got released; Willie’s new label Columbia thought it was only a set of unfinished demos. But despite the executives and the focus groups it got released, topped the charts, and changed the course of country music.

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The album was inspired by the “Tale of the Red Headed Stranger,” a song written by radio DJ Carl Stutz and newspaper editor Edith Lindeman. Originally written for Perry Como but never recorded by him, it was eventually given to Arthur Smith and his Cracker-Jacks in 1954, and Nelson used to play it as a disk jockey on his program in Fort Worth.

“Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of a preacher, a fugitive who kills his wife and her lover. It begins with the Stranger describing his love for his wife whom he suspects is unfaithful.

It was the time of the preacher when the story began
Of the choice of a lady and the love of a man.
How he loved her so dearly, he went out of his mind
When she left him for someone she’d left behind.

And he cried like a baby
And he screamed like a panther in the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
And he went for a ride.

The infidelity is revealed.

And I couldn’t believe it was true, oh Lord,
I couldn’t believe it was true.
And my eyes filled with tears and I must’ve aged in years,
And I couldn’t believe it was true.

The lovers are discovered.

But he found them that evenin’ at a tavern in town
In a quiet little out of the way place.
An’ they smiled at each other when he walked through the door
An’ they died with their smiles on their faces
They died with their smile on their face.

The Stranger feels remorse.

Love is like a dying ember
And only memories remain
And through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes crying in the rain.

He moves on, and commits another murder.

The red headed stranger had eyes like the thunder
And his lips, they were sad and tight
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside
And his heart was heavy this night

The yellow haired lady came down to the tavern
And looked up the stranger there
He bought her a drink, and he gave her some money
He just didn’t seem to care
She followed him out as he saddled the stallion
And laughed as she grabbed at the bay
He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her
She never heard anyone say:

Don’t boss him
Don’t cross him
He’s wild in his sorrow:
He’s ridin’ and hidin’ his pain.
Don’t fight him
Don’t spite him
Just wait till tomorrow:
Maybe he’ll ride on again.

The Stranger continues southward, and there is a chance meeting.

She saw him that evening in a tavern in town
In a quiet little out of the way place.
And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door
And they danced with their smiles on their faces
And they danced with a smile on their face.

The Stranger lets down his guard to seek redemption and love.

Don’t know why, but the one I love left me,
Left me lonely and cold and so weak.
And I need someone’s arms to hold me
Till I’m strong enough to get back on my feet.

He declares his vows with his deceased wife broken, his grief is lifted, and he is free.

You told me once that you were mine alone forever
And I was yours till the end of eternity
But all those vows are broken now and I will never
Be the same except in memory

A brighter face may take my place when we’re apart, dear:
Another love, with a heart more bold and free
But in the end, fairweather friends may break your heart, dear
And if they do, sweetheart, remember me

The story ends years later where the Stranger has found redemption with his new love and a young boy, presumably their grandson.

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.
Well, it’s the same damn tune, it’s the man in the moon
It’s the way that I feel about you
And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes
And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars
And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke
Now my hand’s on the wheel, I’ve something that’s real,
And I feel like I’m goin’ home.

“Red Headed Stranger” is both forward-looking and an archive of country’s past. Willie found a way to weave some lesser-known classics into the tapestry: Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” which became Nelson’s first number-one hit and one of his signature songs; Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”; Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”; the hymn “Just As I Am”; and the ragtime/barrelhouse instrumental “Down Yonder.” All fit seamlessly with songs written and co-written by Willie and his band.

When this album came out, I was eighteen and still thought myself too hip for country music. Fortunately my parents played it in the living room and I grew to appreciate it. Willie is a storyteller who transcends categorization. This is an album that rewards attention and repeated listenings, and is nothing short of genius.

One Comment on “Desert Island Discs: “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson (1975)”

  1. […] “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson (1975) 8/30/14: “Damn The Torpedoes” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers (1979) 6/1/14: […]

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