Red Headed Stranger is a 1975 album both performed and produced by Willie Nelson. It was released by Columbia Records and totals thirty three and a half minutes in length. To me (and to many others), this is the definitive "alt.country" album, as much a thumb in the face to the overproduced radio-ready "country" music of the 1970s as albums like Uncle Tupelo's No Depression, Wilco's Being There, Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and Johnny Cash's American Recordings were to the overproduced Nashville product of the 1990s.
Willie had spent most of the 1960s trying desperately to get over with the mainstream Nashville crowd, but most of his success came as a songwriter. He wrote Crazy, which Patsy Cline took to a huge level of success, along with Hello Walls and many other "mainstream" country hits in the 1960s. But he never really got successful himself.
So, when his house in Nashville burned down in 1970, he got the heck out of Dodge and retreated to Austin, Texas. The musical crowd there at the time was a mix of hippies and cowboys, which would go on to influence and help Willie create the mellow sound of this album. When he got to Austin, he released two final more or less standard Nasville albums in the early 1970s and then was released by his record label (Atlantic).
In essence, Willie had been unheard of for a few years when this album came out. He spent the interim in Austin developing a new sound, a mellow, stripped down acoustic sound that drew as much from 1960s folk music as anything else. He quickly became quite popular in the Austin area because of this sound and as a result was signed by Columbia Records in late 1974, expecting to capitalize on this resurgent interest in Willie, who they still had penciled in as a Nashville-style artist. In fact, when he turned in the album to the labe, they thought it was a joke; it took a great deal of intervention by several musicians with the label (most notably Waylon Jennings) to get this album released.
The result is a mellow and extremely beautiful album that shows how off the mark much of the overproduced "country" music heard today really is. Music fans seemed to like it, too; it's gone double platinum and spawned the hugely popular single Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.
I remember listening to this record spinning around on the old 45 when I was a young child. It would often serve as a lullaby for me, guiding me gently down the path towards sleep. Today, it is as familiar to me as an old blanket; it often plays as background music around my apartment.
The album opens with Time of the Preacher (2:26), opening up the album with a mellow, quietly intense song that introduces so wonderfully his just-behind-the-beat phrasing that would be the trademark of this album and everything else he would ever do. Given that the entire album tells a story of a man gone crazy after a woman leaves him (which it does), this song opens it up, telling the tale of a man in Texas at the turn of the 20th century who lost his mind when his girl left town with an old flame of hers.
The second track, I Couldn't Believe It Was True (1:32), is an expression of disbelief of the events of the opening track. It moves quite a bit faster, especially in the middle third of the track, yet it still keeps the mellow intensity of the earlier track.
The third track is a reprisal of the opener; Time of the Preacher Theme (1:13) takes most of the lyrics of the original, except it seems to be sung with a bit more intensity.
The fourth track, Medley: Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger (1:35), meshes together a song that wouldn't have been on the album with the title track, making it feel as though the title track is almost wrapped around the biggest hit of the album, which comes next.
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain (2:19), aside from perhaps On The Road Again, is Willie Nelson's best known song to the average American. Its gentle melancholy with just a gently strummed guitar, Willie's voice, and just a hit of vocal harmonization in a few places comes off beautifully now, just as it did then.
The next track is the title track. Red Headed Stranger (3:59) is a song that Willie Nelson wrote for his kids; he would sing it to them often as a bedtime story. The version here is a condensed version of the one he would sing for them, but it reveals the strength of his songwriting. Along with the opener and the preceding track, this is probably one of the three truly amazing tracks on the disc.
Time of the Preacher Theme (0:27) returns yet again to the title theme for a bit, making me wonder if "Time of the Preacher" was considered as an album title. This one is quite short, using just a snippet of the album opener.
The eighth track, Just As I Am (1:46), is an instrumental piano-led piece, which comes as something of a surprise because it is surrounded by acoustic tracks with vocals. It's an interesting change of pace, but it doesn't throw off the flow of the album. It almost comes off as a pleasant sigh in the middle of the record.
Denver (0:53) is a short little number about two people meeting at long last in Denver and then dancing together. It leads in well to the eleventh track, O'Er The Waves (0:47), an instrumental which comes off like a short waltz, then Down Yonder (1:53), which is probably the most uptempo song on the disc. It is a quick little piano-led number that sounds like something that would come from a turn-of-the-century saloon, fitting the album's theme perfectly.
Can I Sleep In Your Arms (5:21), aside from being the longest song on the disc, is a return to the earlier melancholy acoustic-led sound of the earlier tracks on the disc. With just a hint of piano in the middle to split the song in half and keep it from going on for too long, this one is a late album gem.
The thirteenth track, Remember Me (2:50), is much more uptempo than the previous track. In terms of the theme of the album, it's about our man finally getting over the impact of the end of the relationship and hoping that the one he loved will remember him. Again, it uses some pleasant, bouncy piano work in a couple of places, a very nice touch that gives the disc a distinctive sound.
Hands on the Wheel (4:21) is my personal favorite on the album, though many others feel quite differently, especially given the bevy of other strong songs here. The music is what gets me; the percussion behind the long conclusion is my favorite part of the song, I think. Lyrically, it's nothing special; it's just about getting on with life, but the music is sublime to my ears.
The album I have on record closes with Bandera (2:16), a slow little melancholic instrumental that ties everything together with its mix of acoustic guitar and piano. It ends simply, just as it should.
In 2001, this album was remastered and rereleased with a few selections from the Columbia archives that were recorded while this album was being put together, but weren't used. In another nice touch, these songs are separated by a ten second or so pause on the CD, giving those who just want to hear the album as originally intended can stop the disc. The bonuses, however, are quite nice.
The first is an acoustic guitar treatment of Bach Minuet in G (0:37), demonstrating that Willie has an ear for classical music as well. It comes off quite well, but this is in part because the underlying piece lends itself well to a well-played acoustic guitar.
I Can't Help It (3:31) comes off sounding much like Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, but slightly inferior to it; that's probably the reason this otherwise complete track wasn't included on the album. It's a pleasant number that would fit very well on the album; a song about not getting over a lost loved one, but it doesn't measure up to some of the amazing stuff the album proper holds.
The third bonus track, A Maiden's Prayer (2:14), probably would have been on the album if there had been space; it would have fit nicely about halfway through. It is a prayer for a lady and a nice song, but it is perhaps the most standard "Nashville" sounding song on the disc, with more evident percussion than anywhere else on the disc.
The closer of the remaster is Bonaparte's Retreat (2:26), featuring a collection of nice guitars that are allowed to play quite a bit to start off the track. It's a very uptempo song that, much like the previous track, has a strong standard Nashville song. Perhaps it is a good thing that they were left off; the album is majestic as it was originally released on vinyl.
This album really is incomparable. It really demonstrates what can be done with just a unique voice, an acoustic guitar, and a bit of piano. If you want something that approaches the simple majesty of this disc, I would point to Willie Nelson's own albums Stardust and Teatro, Johnny Cash's American Recordings, and probably The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. It is truly one of the greatest albums I've ever heard.