by Sam C. Mac Kicking the Canon Music

Willie Nelson | Red Headed Stranger

July 22, 2019

It was the time of the outlaw. Waylon Jennings’s 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes had already set the mould for a type of country music that was solidified in the public consciousness as being radically opposed to the commercial machine of RCA Nashville by the time of Dave Hickey’s influential 1974 article for Country Music Magazine. In 1976, RCA themselves would release Wanted! The Outlaws, a compilation featuring Jennings and his wife Jessi Colter, along with outlaw country’s first breakout commercial star: Willie Nelson. The album that earned Nelson that title, 1975’s Red Headed Stranger, followed two unlikely hit records on Atlantic (1973’s Shotgun Willie and 1974’s Phases and Stages, both cut after Nelson left RCA) and served as the curio of a freshly minted Columbia contract that ensured Nelson complete creative control. Red Headed Stranger is certainly far afield from the orchestra-and-choir backing that typified the countrypolitan sound, but, ironically, it’s also heavily indebted to country music’s past. So if RCA were kicking themselves for losing Nelson to Atlantic in the early ‘70s (and since they relented to Jennings’s request for autonomy largely out of concern of losing him as well, they were), Read Headed Stranger must have been particularly painful. The album was a massive hit — but even worse, Columbia had already shown other labels the way to this kind of success, nearly two decades earlier. Marty Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, from 1959, is a like minded set of outlaw-themed story-songs — and a certified-Gold one, at that. Nelson’s album is different, obviously; it was self-produced, resulting in a rough-hewn sound that concerned even executives at Columbia, who considered its instrumentation more indicative of a “demo” than a finished work (not that they could do anything about it, considering that contract). Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore just how much Nelson’s ‘progressive’ country blockbuster is rooted in genre traditionalism. Even the album’s titular centerpiece is a cover of a single from 1954, by Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith.

Nelson is a great songwriter, a superlative singer — but as an interpreter, he is peerless. And on Red Headed Stranger, he uses that gift not just through the expression of his physical voice, but also his curatorial one.

With Red Headed Stranger, Nelson uncovered a way to survive, and thrive, in the time of the outlaw. But more than that, he found a methodology — a spirit — to guide him through the rest of his career as a recording artist. No, that didn’t mean looking to the past, per se, but rather identifying the aspects of timelessness ingrained in the traditions of American song. That’s why 1978’s lilting but jazzy Stardust is the best standards album of its era; it’s why 1985’s loose but swaggering collaborative effort, Brand on My Heart, is the best album that Hank Snow ever recorded in his mortal life; and it’s why Asleep at the Wheel’s swing music revivalism, on 2009’s Willie and the Wheel, rocks and grooves hard as any modern country album. Nelson is a great songwriter, a superlative singer — but as an interpreter, he is peerless. And on Red Headed Stranger, he uses that gift not just through the expression of his physical voice, but also his curatorial one. Only about half of the songs are originals, while the rest build new meanings into others’ words through the context Nelson creates for them. The songwriter’s own “Time of the Preacher” lays a narrative foundation in broad strokes (“When the story began / Of the choice of a lady / And the love of a man”), but it’s Nelson’s pained yodeling over the hook that really tells the story. Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True” follows, and its narrator’s devastation over a wife who leaves him resonates with hurt and sadness — until, over the course of two Nelson originals, those feelings curdle into jealous rage, and a double homicide. All of this recasts a sentimental Roy Acuff ballad, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” as a chilling extra-narrative interlude: a lament from a man for the woman he misses…whom he also murdered. Nelson never moralizes here, but rather he tells his story with clear-eyed conviction to his unrepentant character. Some have interpreted that as misogyny, but there’s a self-awareness here that suggests otherwise. Consider the lyrical juxtaposition between the moment just after the narrator murders his wife (“they died with their smiles on their faces”) and when, on “Denver,” he meets a new woman who might love his sinful soul (“they danced with their smiles on their faces”). Nelson does something else interesting here, too: he stops relying on original songs to fill-out this narrative. It’s almost as if the real story ends in Denver, on that dance floor, after the traditional waltz of “O’er the Waves” abruptly cuts in. From here on, Red Headed Stranger could be a collection of imagined reveries, the narrator trying, in vain, to redeem himself, living vicariously through stories by Hank Cochrane (“Can I Sleep in Your Arms”) and the lifelong married couple Lulu Belle and Scotty (“Remember Me”). In any case, Nelson’s innovative storytelling, his provocative approach to his morally vexed character, and the timeless appeal he finds in American song, all but ensure that this literary, lawless cowboy’s yarn enjoy classic status.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.