Record of the Week: Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson
When it comes to an artist like Willie Nelson, the one thing I can’t help but feeling is nostalgia. I grew up listening to my mom and dad humming along with classics like “On the Road Again” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on long road trips to visit my grandparents in Colorado, themselves Nelson fans. So I guess it made sense that my grandfather, upon hearing my budding interest in vinyl at age 12(?), presented me with a vinyl copy what he called “Nelson’s finest work”. Listening to it at the time, I moderately enjoyed about one song on the album. That being said, I normally chose to listen to a Beatles or KISS record over Red Headed Stranger when picking out something to listen to. I mostly chalk this up to my irrational dislike of all country music at the time (we all make mistakes when we’re younger). However, upon a rediscovery and reevaluation of the album a few years back, I realized that there was more to this album than one or two good singles.
With Red Headed Stranger, Nelson seems to have made a sort of Country concept album, something I don’t think I’ve heard of before or since. Each song tells its own story, yet weaves into the larger narrative of a wild west desperado coping with the loss of his wife. One can listen just to the song “Red Headed Stranger” and hear about why you should never try and steal a man’s horse, but listening to the whole album around it gives so much more context than just a simple tale. Nelson crafts a story that sounds like a John Wayne picture, yet his songwriting never comes across as dramatic or campy. The listener is taken on the journey of this “red headed stranger” from beginning to end, to the point where the title almost seems ironic. By the end, the listener now knows quite a bit about our protagonist’s goals, struggles, gains, losses and morals. However, Nelson leaves the state of things ambiguous enough to help the listener relate to the tale and leave them with a few thoughts and questions that linger by the time the album ends.
To accompany this tale of sorrow and revenge, Nelson and his band bring their absolute A-game with the instrumentation. When the song is set in a bar or is meant to have a happier tone to it, the tracks consist of upbeat piano and tight drums, such as in the straight out of a silent movie-sounding “Down Yonder”. However, when Nelson wishes to make the song a bit more intimate or sad (which is what most of the album consists of), he frequently cuts out all other instruments in favor of his signature guitar (affectionately named “Trigger”). Using a classical guitar for a country song at the time was considered outlandish, but it lends such a warm, unique and lonely sound to it. Each solo comes across as hauntingly beautiful, as if it were being played in the back of a smoky western saloon (Can I Sleep in Your Arms).
It is also worth noting Nelson’s career at the time. With his first album coming out in 1962, he was originally a very clean cut, radio friendly smiling crooner with mediocre to moderate success. However, beginning in 1972, his look and sound began to change into a more outlandish and different version of country music. When comparing 1975’s Red Headed Stranger to the rest of his discography, this seems to be the point at which he fully embraced his “outlaw” side, grew out his hair, and began writing albums that reflected his change in style. Songs on Red Headed Stranger can be as short as under 2 minutes (Time of the Preacher Theme) or as long as 5 minutes. This shows Nelson’s newfound interest in making music not for the general populace, but delivering a message and telling a story. It seems that he wished to make an album that sounded classic yet raw and timeless, and he succeeded. In the words of my grandfather, it truly is Nelson’s “finest work”.
I highly recommend picking up this record if you see it, the story format and the way the songs blend into each other are perfect for the vinyl format.
Next week: A 70’s fusion jazz classic with a flair for breaking genre conventions.