Just now and then, as you’re growing up, an album comes along that shakes and re-orders your musical landscape like an earthquake. For me, as for many others, Highway 61 had that effect, as did the Beatles’ White Album and The Paul Simon Songbook. Less obviously, there was The Band and Davey Graham’s Folk, Blues and Beyond.
A bit later, Willie Nelson’s strange and haunting album The Red Headed Stranger came along, sending me westward-ho with a new love of country music.
I had, from the Everly Brothers onwards, enjoyed the country sound, but this was different. It was spare, personal. The fancy production and rhinestone glitter. There was no trace of a pedal-steel guitar or even backing vocals.
There was just musical story-telling of mesmeric quality.
The Red Headed Stranger was, I suppose, a concept album, but in 1975, when it was released, that term had become a bit embarrassing.. Concept albums were inevitably pretentious, over-long, over-produced , self-indulgent. It was a time when pop was getting too big for its boots.
This album is the very opposite of that.
It has a quiet, stories-round-the-campfire feel to it. The songs weave around a tale of betrayal, murder, guilt and loneliness. Each track is brief, sparely produced and simply played. The astonishing song ‘Time of the Preacher‘, which, opening with six bell-like chords, sets the scene at the start of the album , then returns throughout, sometimes sung, sometimes as an instrumental:
‘It was the time of the preacher
When the story began
With the choice of a lady
And the love of a man
How he loved her so dearly
He went out of his mind
When she left him for someone
That she’d left behind
He cried like a baby
He screamed like a panther
In the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
He went for a ride
It was the time of the preacher
In the year of ’01
Now the preachin’ is over
And the lesson’s begun.’
Looking back, I can now see why I couldn’t stop playing that album. Miraculously, Willie Nelson had pulled together elements of which have particular appeal to me: the story of a lonely outsider, the pared-back production, the vocal style, the easy way Willie plays his Spanish guitar, like a conversation in counterpoint to what is being sung.
And he brought in some great old songs that he remembered from his days as DJ. There’s ‘Down Yonder’ from 1921, his arrangement of ‘Sobra las Olas‘, a Mexican waltz from 1888, now called ‘O’er the Waves’. Country hits from 1940s – ‘Remember Me’ (1940), ‘I Couldn’t Believe It Was True’ ( 1947) and, most memorably, Fred Rose’s ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (1947).
If you listen to the originals of those songs (follow the links) and then Willie’s versions, you begin to see what an extraordinary act of musical transformation he achieves throughout the album. Covering decades of different styles of music, they all belong together.
It’s a strange fact that, although Willie is perhaps the greatest writer of country songs we’ve seen, only two and a half songs on this album came from his pen.
The half, incidentally, is ‘Blue Rock Montana‘, which, before it morphs into ‘Red-Headed Stranger’, tells the story of the murder at the heart of the story.
‘He found them that evening in a tavern in the town
In a quiet little out-of-the-way place.
And they smiled at each other when he walked through the door
And they died with the smiles on their faces.’
Another oddity. As this article in Wide Open Country explains, the album was the result of Willie Nelson stepping off the Nashville treadmill to develop his own sound.
Most artists, given a free rein by their recording companies, would go big. Willie went small, assembling a few musicians and recording songs he know from the past, some of which he sang as lullabies to his children.
It was only because the contract with Columbia gave him artistic control that the record was made and released.
‘Nothing about this record yodels “commercial smash.” It flew in the face of current country practices, and many CBS execs fought not to put it out, claiming it sounded like a half-baked demo that no one would buy. “They thought I’d gone insane because there wasn’t that much there,” says Nelson of the now infamous board meetings. “I think Waylon Jennings shamed them into putting it out.”‘
Since his contract stipulated complete creative control, no changes were made to the tapes .’
It has been fascinating researching around the album – I particularly recommend this brilliant 2017 essay by Rebecca Bengal in pitchfork.com. The album needs to be listened to as a whole, but the title track, written by the husband-and-wife team of Chuck Stutz and Edith Calisch in 1954, is a good way into it. Here, yet again, Willie Nelson takes a pretty bog-standard song and turns it into something mythic and dreamlike, a tale of loneliness and wandering, of not belonging and freedom.
For me, this is Willie Nelson at his best. The album, which became a surprise hit and was listed among the Rolling Stone Magazine‘s top albums of all time, is a testament to what can happen when a songwriter – at least this songwriter – is liberated from what Joni Mitchell once called ‘the star machinery behind the popular song’ and is allowed to follow his own musical star.
The lyrics , finally, contain some of my favourite lines from a cowboy song:
‘The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset,
The stranger went free, of course
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.’
Ah, those were the days…