#237: Red Headed Stranger, Willie Nelson
This is a concept album, which is my favorite kind of album. Maybe it’s because I love fiction, but I just love when albums weave their songs into a story. Red Headed Stranger tells the tale of a man who finds his lady friend in bed with an ex-boyfriend (“I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”) then guns them down. The rest of the album follows his trials and travails as he runs from the law, which includes ruminating on his crimes (“Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain”) and finding solace in other women (“Can I Sleep in Your Arms”). I’m just as anti-intimate partner violence as the next guy, but you can’t help but feel a pang for this outlaw.
Even though Nelson is the songwriting hero here, the album was actually built around a song he didn’t write. “Red Headed Stranger” was written by Carl Stutz and Edith Lindeman, and tells the tale of a ne’er-do-well who kills a lady for trying to steal his former lover’s pony. It’s pretty fun, believe it or not. Don’t cross him/Don’t boss him/He’s wild in his sorrow!
“Denver,” written by Nelson, was one of my favorites, and not just because I used to live there. I love the sentiment that the city skyline is shinin’ like diamonds/Like ten thousand jewels in the sky. And I like to imagine that the instrumental song immediately following it, “O’er the Waves,” is what he dances to.
In fact, this record has quite a few instrumentals. I wasn’t surprised to find that “Just As I Am” is his rendition of a traditional hymn — it sounds so churchy. “Down Yonder” is my favorite instrumental, with a cheerful piano part played by Nelson’s older sister Bobbie. And even though the final track “Bandera” is an instrumental, I think it’s pretty clear that it depicts the stranger escaping to Mexico.
On my first listen, I kind of assumed this was way older than 1975. Maybe it’s because “Time of the Preacher” mentions the year of ’01, and I had to reckon with the fact that he was talking about 1901, not 2001. That song has two reprises, by the way, both titled “Time of the Preacher Theme.” Touches like that made this whole album feel so cinematic. I wasn’t surprised to find that it was the inspiration for a film of the same name in 1986. Willie Nelson plays the Reverend!
If I’m not mistaken, this is our first brush with “outlaw country.” I assumed it would be all Shoot ’Em Up-type songs, but instead, we get mostly reflective songs on what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the law. “Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming” legitimately brought a tear to my eye, and so did “Hands on the Wheel.” In fact, I think it’s worth quoting my favorite verse in full:
I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars
And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke
Now my hand’s on the wheel, I’ve something that’s real
And I feel like I’m goin’ home.
Each time I hear that, I feel like I, too, am going home.
Other Highlights: It cracks me up that “Medley: Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger” is classified as a medley, because it’s barely one minute long! Also, Willie Nelson’s voice was a highlight for me. Is it stupid to say I assumed he would sound as bad as Bob Dylan? He sounds beautiful.
IS RS FULL OF IT? Yes, but here, they’re on the money.