Published On: Fri, Mar 3rd, 2017

Classic Album: Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson

The album wasn’t what Columbia Records wanted to hear.

Having decided to get into country, they managed to snap up Willie Nelson, as Atlantic had just dropped their entire country roster, Nelson included, as a failed experiment. Willie was pretty well known even back then; he’d released 13 albums for RCA, then quit and joined Atlantic and released two more.

He was best-known as a songwriter, though, for songs such as Crazy that Patsy Cline had turned into a massive hit, and not so much as a performer. The album he delivered to Columbia was essentially just him, a guitar, a piano player, a drummer and a ‘concept’.

It was all about the performance. There were no backing vocals nor string sections, and there was no showbiz to the record. It was pure and simple like a mountain stream, and it was completely out of step with the rest of the industry. This was the era of Blanket on the Ground and Rhinestone Cowboy, and country music was all about razzmatazz.

Columbia couldn’t tell Willie to re-record the album; they could ask, sure, but Willie’s contract gave him full artistic control, something that had been a catalyst for him leaving RCA and Nashville in the first place.

Country stars tended not to dictate production in Nashville. Willie was no ordinary star. New Columbia president and country fan Bruce Lundvall played the record to other execs. They hated it too.

It sounded as if it had been recorded in Willie’s living room. Lundvall took it home, and played it again and again over the weekend. By the end, he loved it.
According to his biography, when he came back into work on Monday morning Lundvall gathered together the Columbia staff and told them they were going to release the record. “It’s not going to sell,” he warned them. “But it’s Willie’s labour of love and it’ll always appeal to collectors.” There were some legendary boardroom clashes before the album was eventually released, unchanged.

The rest, of course, is history. The album went multi-platinum and is regarded as one of the most influential records of all time. Nelson himself is often referred to as the ‘Red Headed Stranger’ to this day, and there was even a film made starring Willie in the eponymous title role.

Nelson remains characteristically modest about its success: “I wasn’t really that smart,” he says. “I was playing areas down in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and I knew what [the audiences] liked. I knew they liked this music, the real simple three-chord country stuff. It was missing on the radio, so they were glad to see it come back. I didn’t do anything brilliant. And I didn’t think it was radical. Maybe a little reckless. I just jumped in front of the crowd and became the leader.”

A concept album! Really?

Red Headed Stranger tells the story of a preacher who kills his wife and her lover and then travels the wilderness. Another slaying, of a ‘yellow haired lady’ who tries to steal the stranger’s horse, follows.

On side two, the stranger finds redemption and love again in Denver and finishes his life as a contented man. The album switches viewpoint from song to song, sometimes seen through the eyes of the red headed stranger, sometimes from the third person, and sometimes in the form of a chorus.

As well as original composition, Nelson weaves in country standards such as the 1947 Fred Rose song, Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, which Willie uses to show the remorse felt by the stranger after killing his wife. There’s even a hymn, Just As I Am, which would have been familiar to most of Willie’s listeners. It’s a hymn of redemption from sin, of course.

The album was suggested to Nelson by the title track Red Headed Stranger, written by Edith Lindeman Calisch and Carl Stutz in 1953. Willie knew the version by Arthur ‘Guitar-Boogie’ Smith and played the record on his kids’ radio show in the 50s – and used to sing it for his daughter Lana as a bedtime song.



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