World Records, No. 1: Willie Nelson – ‘Red Headed Stranger’ (1975)
Welcome to World Records. As a reminder from our introduction to this series, we’re going to take a look at 50 country albums across multiple different decades. Some of them are revered as classics, some of them are important, and some are just iconic. The difference between those meanings is subject to interpretation. Anyway, these will not be deep-dives into what make these albums iconic – though that is a part of the discussion – nor will I seek to canonize them. Instead, these will be personal reviews to dig into the albums themselves and see what made them special then, and whether or not they hold up well today … at least, for me. Country has never been a traditionally album-oriented genre. Actually, it’s just about the most single-driven format in history. But, given that we’re starting with the ‘70s for this feature, I think it’s fitting to take a look at an album that I believe kickstarts country music’s greater commitment to the album art form. Let’s dive headfirst, shall we?
Red Headed Stranger is not the first country music concept album. It’s not the first Willie Nelson concept album. It’s not the first country album to draw from western inspiration, nor is it the first to feature a provocative setup like revenge murder; there’s a surprisingly deep history to that, actually.
If anything, however, that’s part of the point in this album’s creation. The groundwork had already been established for an ambitious storytelling narrative record such as this. With the critical and commercial success of Marty Robbins’ 1959 Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, for instance, an artist had proved that sometimes – or really, often – labels should relent to let artists record their personal passion projects. And through Porter Wagoner’s Skid Row Joe character – who played a recurring role on several concept albums of his – another artist proved that the basis for a good idea could start with a broader vision, rather than just a three-minute radio single.
There are other examples, of course, but if anything, it goes more to show the irony behind Red Headed Stranger’s importance to country music. After all, it was first and foremost important to the Willie Nelson story than the running country music one of the time. He may have made a name for himself as a Nashville industry songwriter whose compositions earned the respect of artists like Patsy Cline and Ray Price in the 1960s, but by December 1970, following a house fire and a divorce, Nelson settled in Austin. And it turns out he belonged there, able to connect just as much with the local cowboys through his music as he was the long-haired and the young – an open-minded attitude and a diverse audience that Nashville music executives weren’t aiming for at the time.
Of course, he’d inadvertently conquer Nashville in time, just on his own terms. Through Atlantic Records he’d record far more sprawling and ambitious projects than his previous offerings, but it wasn’t until he signed to Columbia and recorded his label debut for them that a legend would truly be born, and all for just $4,000 at a studio in Garland, Texas.
It’s funny. I’ve listened to the holy trifecta of Nelson’s early ‘70s projects countless times over the years (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages being the other two, of course) and can recall pretty much any song from either of his first two from memory, even despite being completely different works. Sure, the former work is far more accessible – as funky, groove-driven, and downright catchy as Nelson’s music has ever been – but the latter project, despite being the headier listen, is so even-keeled and masterly crafted, that I always end up blown away with every revisit.
With Red Headed Stranger, no matter how many times I go back through, it always feels like the first time listening again. Part of it is natural design – which we’ll no doubt get to – but despite being the more quaint and less immediate concept album for me, even compared to later works as well, because of both the length and the stark presentation, it’s oddly easy to return to … even despite being an album saddled by grief, anger, and revenge. And yet, looking outside of my own perspective for a moment, given how much this album went against the grain in terms of its recording process, concept, and desired goal in general, it’s hard to deny the results – a deserved and long-awaited breakthrough not just for Nelson in Nashville, but way beyond it and beyond country music. And because it’s the album that granted him creative control to record whatever else he wanted – in turn inspiring other artist and even labels to take chances they wouldn’t have before – I can’t help but respect the groundwork this particular album set, especially for the albums we’ll be discussing ahead.
But in going back to the actual album … it’s odd. It’s undoubtedly the concept album that’s inspired and been mined most for ideas in similar western-inspired projects of this vein, but to be fair, this in and of itself is pulling from a pretty broad focus with its own tradition, not just in the way it effectively adds new context and meaning to the covers used to further the narrative, but also in the base concept itself. After all, by track four, the main deed is done – a scorned husband kills the wife he suspected of being unfaithful all along as well as her lover in cold blood, with the rest of the album aimed at the hypnotic nature of it all – the gambit of emotions plus the fallout and possible redemption.
We’ll circle back to that, but it’s always been telling to me of the role Nelson plays here. He’s not the central character in this story, more just an observer from afar – the only one aware of a man’s darkest secrets and crimes, which, in the time of western justice in the early 20th century, aren’t necessarily crimes he’d have to publicly answer for, even if he was caught. But they will eat at one’s psyche, all the same, which is where I can respect the restrained approach overall to this album’s production, even if I tend to prefer my western-concept albums to have more of a direct sonic edge or bite to them. After all, outside of some very subtle flourishes here and there – the thumping gallop employed in “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” to accelerate the tension of the revelatory cheating being my favorite – this is an album mainly driven by those signature Spanish acoustics, soft keys, and harmonica, as empty, dusty, and wide open as the landscape itself, and a sonic foundation that’s come to define Nelson’s work in general.
But the framing still matters. Inside, the main character is running through stages of loneliness, betrayal, grief, anger, sadness, and more, all at once. But from Nelson’s – and by extension, our – perspective, there’s little more than just a hollow emptiness there, reflected in the ghost of what once was a man who has to live with what he’s done. But it’s also that vast openness that serves to highlight the surprisingly gentle and memorable melodies, most of which are pulled from elsewhere but only serve to immortalize the legend, like old folk tales passed down. And it’s also what highlights Nelson himself, never once known as a great singer on a technical level and always famous for his quirkier flow and delivery habits, but still a fantastic emotive interpreter whose unassumingly craggy style somehow commands the room.
Yes, even despite this being a discussion on the album itself, the iconic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is still the centerpiece for me, a song originally written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. On its own, it’s a song about a hopeful reunion between two wayward lovers, and whether the separation is from a breakup or death itself, one can’t say for sure. But even if the context is more direct here, there’s still that added complexity of it no longer being a song about that reunion – just potential regret over what’s been done and what could have been. It’s not the type of album that deserves to mine sympathy for its character, but the way Nelson nails the broken desperation here for something more is always nothing short of breathtaking.
Now, despite the story’s starting point feeling a bit primitive today in its broader framing, there’s an echoed influence here I don’t just respect, but outright love in sketching out that completed story from beginning to end, even if it is through both well-known and lesser-known songs of the time (and somewhat before it). It’s cohesive, it works, and it serves to highlight how simple songs can take on entirely new contexts and way more complex meanings than before. And it does so by being purposefully simple in concept and sound. But compared to what came before and after – both in the context of Nelson’s discography and in what drew from the ideas here and expanded upon them – it does feel more like the ambitious starting point today, rather than the final crowning achievement. And that’s speaking more in terms of subjective quality rather than its importance – I did say that’s what this feature would be all about – because it’s very telling that the title track this album originally drew inspiration from in the first place is far more detailed as a whole, able to sketch a fuller character portrait of a man who has no qualms killing a potential horse thief. It’s another moment where context matters, because on its own, it’s your tried-and-true outlaw tale that’s been (literally) passed down through the ages. But here, it’s another moment of added depth, where the grueling cruelty is just an ironic facade for a character who’s overcome any emotions to become a nihilistic shell of who he once was.
If anything, though, it’s also why I’ve always wished for greater buildup to the main character himself, and more moments of vulnerability that could have driven him apart from his wife – maybe even a track told from her perspective in the vein of Phases and Stages. Between the multiple covers and instrumentals, it’s effective in splicing together a story, but I always end up wishing for one or two more originals to tie it all together a bit better. And to be honest, I’ve always felt that the redemptive arc that arguably starts with “Denver” and concludes the remainder of the album isn’t as strong as what comes before it. The pacing is much slower, the instrumentation feels a bit more languid in tone overall – particularly the keys – and it’s also where that added complexity starts to fade away, instead opting for more straightforward forgiveness for a character who probably doesn’t deserve it anyway, at least not so easily. It’s also slightly inconsistent for me. “Denver,” a Nelson original where our lead character finds a new place to settle and a new love to hold, feels oddly abortive, but then the other arguable centerpiece, the cover of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms,” just tends to drag without much in the way of actual justification. I can’t argue that’s it not effective in what it’s all going for, but at least for me, it’s not as sharp as the front half.
But you know, I always wind up circling back around to the little subtleties I can appreciate about this album. Its weathered tones and cracks are beautiful even if its story is beautifully sad, and it might be just my favorite album to spotlight Nelson’s underrated strength as an emotive presence, even if I might lean more toward the varied weirdness of other projects more often and more fondly. But because it is so purposefully simple, it’s still a tale I never tire of hearing. I guess I really ought to call and thank Nelson, not only for rediscovering Red Headed Stranger, but for proving the profound impact that imbuing a completed album with heart and soul can have on an entire genre of music.
Join me next time, where we’ll discuss Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.