Willie Nelson’s brief stint with Atlantic Records yielded only modest commercial success, but the two albums he recorded for the label helped him land his deal with Columbia, where his labors finally began to bear some fruit. His first single for the label, a remake of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”, written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff thirty years earlier, reached #1, becoming the first of 25 Nelson chart-toppers.
His contract with Columbia gave Willie complete creative control over his records, a decision that initially resulted in some buyer’s remorse for the label when Willie submitted his first project, Red Headed Stranger. The album had been recorded on a shoestring budget in Garland, Texas and was produced by Willie himself. In stark contrast to the heavily produced fare that dominated country music at the time, Red Headed Stranger was a stripped-down affair, that used only eight musicians. Most of the arrangements consisted only of Willie’s vocals and guitar, some harmonica and occasional percussion, and the piano-playing of Willie’s sister Bobbie. Upon hearing the finished product, the executives at Columbia thought they were listening to a demo recording and were understandably reluctant to release what seemed at the time to be a decidedly non-commercial album. But release it they did, and to their credit, they did their job promoting it because Red Headed Stranger was blockbuster success, far exceeding everyone’s expectations. It’s hard to imagine an album in this vein being released today, especially by a major label, and even harder imagining it achieving a similar level of success.
Red Headed Stranger is built around the title track, which Willie had performed at his live shows in Austin. Encouraged by his then-wife, Connie Koepke, he wrote a backstory for the song’s protagonist and incorporated some of his own orignal compostions and some classic country songs, and created a western concept album that played a huge role in changing the country music landscape. The album opens with Willie’s self-penned “Time Of The Preacher”, which tells of a preacher who suspects his wife of infidelity. In the next track, Eddy Arnold and Wally Fowler’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”, his suspicions are confirmed. A brief reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” follows, and then a medley of “Blue Rock Montana” and “Red Headed Stranger”, in which the cuckolded husband kills his unfaithful wife and her lover, and then becomes a fugitive. The preacher laments the loss of his wife in “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” before committing another murder in the full-length version of “Red Headed Stranger”. The fugitive kills a woman whom he mistakenly believes is trying to steal his pony, to which he attached great sentimental value because it had belonged to his late wife. He avoids prosecution because apparently according to frontier justice, “you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”
Another brief 27-second reprise of “Time Of The Preacher” comes next, followed by the instrumental “Just As I Am” and another short number, “Denver”, which tells the listener that the Preacher has traveled south, where another woman catches his fancy. Another pair of brief instrumental numbers help to make the transition to a very nice version of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms Tonight” and Melba Mable Bourgeois’ “Remember Me”, which show that the Preacher is ready to bury his past and begin a new relationship. “Remember Me” was the album’s second and final single, landing at #2. “Hands On The Wheel”, which finds the Preacher as an old man with a new love and a young boy, concludes the story. The instrumental “Bandera” closes out the original album.
Sony’s Legacy imprint reissued a remastered version of Red Headed Stranger in 2000, along with four new tracks, which though very enjoyable, don’t add to the story and certainly don’t blend as seamlessly as the album’s original tracks do. They do have merit as standalone tracks, however. I particularly like Willie’s take on the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” and “Bonaparte’s Retreat”, a Pee Wee King number that had been a hit for Glen Campbell in 1974.
A sparsely-produced album such as Red Headed Stranger was as huge a commercial risk in 1975 as it would be today, and as I noted earlier, such a risk would not likely be undertaken today. However, Nashville record executives might be well served to look back as projects such as this one, which sold more than two million copies and is now regarded as a landmark album for country music. It is essential listening that deserves a place in the library of every country music fan.