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Classic Albums Revisited: Willie Nelson, ‘Red Headed Stranger’

Willie Nelson Red Headed Stranger
Columbia Records

When Willie Nelson recorded ‘Red Headed Stranger’ in 1975, his record label thought it was too difficult a listening experience to succeed. But the album was a commercial and critical smash, and has gone on to become one of the keystone albums in the history of country music.

Nelson had already experienced significant success prior to signing with Columbia Records, and that allowed him to bargain for complete creative control of his work for the label. Nelson conceptualized the themes that would become ‘Red Headed Stranger’ during a car ride from Colorado to his home in Austin, and recorded a demo of the resulting songs at his ranch.

“I started out with the song ‘Red Headed Stranger’ itself, a song that I didn’t write but I used to sing when I was a disc jockey many years ago,” Nelson recalled in 2000. “So, when I had the chance to do an album with CBS, what was almost unheard of in those days was artistic control. I had to stop and think of what I wanted to do. I took the ‘Red Headed Stranger’ album and thought, “I’ll write a concept album about what happened up until that song started, and then what happened after the end of it.”

The new work turned into a dark, thematic album about a man who murders his unfaithful wife and her lover and goes on the run, weaving Nelson’s own compositions with classic songs and bits of narration to create one of country music’s first true concept albums.

Hoping to avoid the slick commercial production that had characterized much of his work in Nashville, Nelson recorded his new album at a studio in Garland, Texas, using his own band instead of Nashville session players. He produced the album himself, and the result was a bold step in a strikingly different direction from anything else that was going on in country music at the time. Not only was the new music intellectually challenging, it had nothing in common sonically with the lush, string-laden sound that had lately dominated radio.

When he played the album for his new label, they were hesitant to release it. “Well, yeah. They’d never heard anything, probably, that sparse turned in as a session,” Nelson admitted with a laugh. “They thought it needed a little…you know, maybe it sounded pretty good as a demo, but I couldn’t be serious about it being a finished product.”

But Nelson, citing his deal, insisted that the album be released as recorded, and Columbia reluctantly complied. Released in May of 1975, ‘Red Headed Stranger’ became a runaway hit, landing at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and eventually selling more than two million copies. Nelson’s sparse, mournful recording of Fred Rose’s 1947 standard ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ reached No.1, and the album’s other single, ‘Remember Me,’ reached No. 2.

Critical reception was equally enthusiastic. Texas Monthly called the record “an album so remarkable that it calls for a redefinition of the term ‘country music’ . . . the world that Nelson has created is so seductive that you want to linger there indefinitely.” Mother Jones said, “Texans have known for 15 years what ‘Red Headed Stranger’ finally revealed to the world; that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer — just too damn universal — to be defined as merely a country artist.”

The album launched Nelson into the vanguard of the growing Outlaw movement in country music, and simultaneously made him one of country music’s biggest-selling stars. He would go on to star in a movie based on the album, and ‘Red Headed Stranger’ has received numerous accolades in the decades since its release.

Rolling Stone placed the album at No. 183 in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and CMT placed it at No. 1 in the 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In 2009 the album was adopted into the National Recording Registry, which recognizes work that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States.”

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