Album Review – Red Headed Stranger (1975) – Willie Nelson
This album review article comes at you because I recently recommended this album to my friend Travis. Curiously, and perhaps only due to a particular day of ill temperament, the awesomeness of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album missed on his nearly impeccable audio marksmanship. It dumbfounded me so much that I felt an album review was in order!
Now, let me start by saying that Travis’ response to Red Headed Stranger should not have caught me by surprise and he should not be chastised for in the name of auricular negligence. The reason I dove into Red Headed Stranger myself was because I had once read a review that it was the greatest country music album made. I tried it and I probably felt about the way Travis had. Indifference towards it encompassed me. Years went by. Sticking with a Try Everything Twice attitude, I recently decided to take another venture with Willie and my ears. It was that second try in which it struck me that the album was a concept album about the Red Headed Stranger, each song being an actual chapter in his book of life. The album sucked me in and I began devouring it semi-daily when I arrived home. It has since brought me to many of Willie Nelson’s albums. I must add, that before my addiction to the Red Headed Stranger album, Willie Nelson to me was: On the Road Again, Whiskey River, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Waylon Jennings’ partner in crime, a Highwayman, the guy who wrote Crazy for Patsy Cline, an ambassador of marijuana, the previous owner of a headband I have acquired*, and, essentially a long red-headed stranger. However, since the Red Headed Stranger I have become quite accustomed to the red headed stranger and have been sampling a portion of his music. I would like to get through his catalogue of music, but…
Willie has a lot of music.
A REAL LOT.
Red Headed Stranger came out in 1975 and it was Nelson’s 18th studio album. By the time my birth year rolled around, there are 30 different Willie Nelson albums to be reckoned with. A quick scroll through Spotify shows 104 albums listed from 1962 to today. And since Spotify always starts with the newest album at the top, it takes three or four full-length finger swipes from bottom to top of your phone to even get to the 1980s. The albums of the 1970s that I am looking for are still below that, and in getting there I have probably scrolled past 600 Willie Nelson songs, about 594 of which I have never even heard before. It would take a lifetime just to get through and learn all of that Willie Nelson music. And fortunately for us, this is not a Willie Nelson discography lesson, as it would take me until I was about 86 years of age in preparation for writing that particular article. So, I will focus on Red Headed Stranger because I have a hunch you are not going to wait for that discography lesson…
Click the video to have the Red Headed Stranger play for you!
I recently read that Willie negotiated full control of his recording creativity with his record company just before the dawning of Red Headed Stranger, which he then went on to make with Trigger, his Martin guitar. The Red Headed Stranger album is very stripped down. Mostly all you are going to hear is Willie and Trigger, plus a bass and drums in places in addition to some other accompaniment here and there. Mostly though, this Willie and Trigger’s album. Legend has it that when Willie took the album to Columbia Records, they thought the recordings were just his demo tapes for the album he planned to record. Nelson told them that this was the album. It has been said that Columbia was reluctant to release the album, but had no choice since they had granted Nelson full creativity control. The album went on to became a huge hit and it made Nelson a household name.
So, without any further background rambling and less bandana boasting, it is time to get into this album:
Time of the Preacher – This is the lead track off the album. It takes 11 seconds until hear that familiar sound. Did you hear that? Trigger, Willie’s guitar, rides right into your audio canals! If you do not recognize that particular sound as Willie Nelson’s guitar, you need more Willie Nelson in your life! Even before this journey with the Red Headed Stranger, my ears could pick out that guitar sound without hearing Willie’s voice as Trigger is so distinct. You are going to hear a lot of Trigger over the next 33 minutes while you learn that the story of the Red Headed Stranger is the story of preacher who goes out of his mind when the love of his life, “…left him for someone that she’d left behind.” Well, now that you know that premise, and you know the title of the album, you also know that this is not going to go well. Dread is likely on the horizon. You can hope for the sake of humanity that it does not go as poorly as you guess it may, but something in you just knows… There is great imagery in here: “He screamed like a panther in the middle of the night.” Of course I do not know about you, but heard a crazy sound in my head when I heard that line. Luckily, I have not been distressed enough in my own life to have ever actually vocalized the sound my mind makes of a man who screams like a panther. I have also since decided that I hope to never to find myself involuntarily making that sound aloud in my life. The Red Headed Stranger, “…saddled his pony and he went for a ride.” Oh shit… If you have ever seen a western movie in your life, you know that a man distraught with anger and grief who is saddling his horse is going on a spree and this spree will not be of the shopping kind. And, everyone knows that red-heads have hot tempers! This is bad news. “The Preachin’ is over and lesson’s begun.” The Red Headed Stranger has lost faith and apparently hard lessons are on the way, though we are not sure yet who will be on the receiving end of those lessons. But before you get too worked up, take a moment to enjoy the work of Trigger that takes you away at 1:39 of the track. That is one pretty sound to accompany bad motives.
I Couldn’t Believe It Was True – Denial. She is gone. She actually left. I am sorry to hear this loathsome news as well. But before we get into what the Red Headed Stranger has to say, we has better talk about the music here first. First off, at 0:22 of the song, you hear Willie’s voice, Trigger stops for a moment to take a breath, and you hear Willie tapping on trigger while the pick-up on the guitar picks up the sound. I have never witnessed this image, but I sure can see it in my mind where I picture Willie sitting on a wooden crate in the middle of a room with Trigger on his lap as he taps the guitar with his right hand. The song has been double-tracked to get the tapping and to get Trigger playing over the tapping. Trigger busts loose with a great little riff at 0:36 and then there is some fantastic picking that takes place. Then these lyrics in a row at her loss, “Well the shock was so great I am quivering yet. And I’ll try to forgive but I can not forget.” Powerful. If you listen closely you can hear Nelson nose-whistling into the microphone as he finishes up his lyrics.
Time of the Preacher Theme – The song starts with, “But he could not forgive her, though he tried and he tried and he tried… and the halls of his memory, still echo her lies.” Oh oh, that sounds like remorse to me. The Red Headed Stranger is off, “Now the lesson is over, and the killin’s begun…” I knew it. You knew it. We all knew it. There was foreshadowing of that bad spree mentioned earlier. I need to catch my breath…
Medley: Blue Rock Montana / Red headed Stranger – The stranger heads to Blue Rock, Montana, checks into a room, and lays on the bed with an inability to sleep. Insomnia you wonder? No, of course not. The Red Headed Stranger has desperation and pain in him that is causing his ceiling stare, “Still hoping that he was not right…” I make misjudgments when I am really tired and sometimes I am quite irritable, and you can guess that the Red Headed Stranger suffers from the same adverse effects. But, he finds his wife and her lover that night, in an out of the way place, and he shoots them dead with their pleasure-affair smiles on their faces. We did not know when the obvious was going to happen, but it happened rather swiftly. I guess the Red Headed Stranger was considering the ‘tear off the band-aid quickly’ philosophy. In my mind, the lovers were looking into each other’s eyes at that moment. It seems like they were happy. We are not told about her partner, but she left him before and recently came back to him so he is probably pretty happy about the situation. And it seems she should be happy too in that moment, even though hindsight shows the worst, as she just left a man who later stalked her down and shot her, so clearly she had made the right decision in leaving him for the man she had left before. I say this because the man she left before did not stalk her and shoot her, so he evidently was a better man that the Red Headed Stranger and her judgment was correct. However, I guess she had not thought about how bad the Red Headed Stranger might be or she would planned her actions a little better and got to a far more ‘out of the way place.’ Oh well. It is too late to change that. “Don’t boss him. Don’t cross him. He’s wild in his sorrow. He’s ridin’ and hidin’ his pain. Don’t fight him. Don’t spite him. Just wait till tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again.” Willie has it figure out. Willie knows to stay the heck out of the way. You would think she had known her husband better than Willie…
Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – This is a beauty. Willie’s voice starts the words ‘In the twilight…’ with the force of a tidal wave. It is incredibly gorgeous and powerful. Plus the incredible lyric, ‘Love is like a dying ember, and only memories remain’ comes from this song. That is poetry. This is one of my favorite Willie Nelson songs as the song is so beautiful in its sadness. As well, Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain has one of my favorite guitar solos in music. Actually, to be completely honest, it is the guitar solo I play anytime I play guitar around my father to make him think that I do not completely suck at guitar. I do suck, but I can pull off this solo well enough that I feel that people who hear me play it might actually think I am a decent musician when I pluck it out. My dad is a great musician and I know he knows better, but something in me has optimism that when I play this solo and I try to make it seem effortless in front of my father, he may briefly waver for a split-second in his knowledge that I am a lousy musician. He probably does not, but it gives me hope…
Red Headed Stranger – Well, the Red Headed Stranger is on the move and rides into a small town on his path of sorrow. Great imagery comes with, ‘And under his knees was a raging black stallion and walking behind was a bay. The Red Headed Stranger has eyes like the thunder and his lips they were sad and tired.’ Awesome. In my mind the Red Headed Stranger is wearing a black hat and black coat, both fading to grey from the beating sun. Willie gives off that warning again to make darn sure you hide out and stay away from the Red Headed Stranger. But, ‘A Yellow Haired Lady leaned out of her window,’ with greedy eyes for the bay pony. She obviously did not hear Willie’s warning. Willie even says it twice. Sometimes people just do not listen… That horse means something to the Red Headed Stranger and the Yellow Haired Lady has ulterior motives when some comes down to the tavern to meet the Red Headed Stranger. He buys her a drink. He gives her money. The Red Headed Stranger does not seem to care. There are things on his mind beyond some floozy living above the bar who is likely whoring to make her income. The Red Headed Stranger goes to leave. Bad news as the yellow haired lady did not heed Willie’s third warning and gets caught up in the spree, ‘She followed him out as he saddled his stallion and laughed as she grabbed at the bay. He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her. She never heard anyone say, “Don’t boss him. Don’t cross him. He’s wild in his sorrow. He’s ridin’ and hidin’ his pain. Don’t fight him. Don’t spite him. Just wait till tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again.”’ I guess before the Yellow Haired Lady lost her life she also never heard anyone say that a person should take time to listen. At this point, I am not surprised that she never heard that life doctrine. This gal is a terrible listener. It is too bad, as that erroneous way cost her life and that is the toughest lesson there is! “The Yellow Haired Lady was buried at sunset. The stranger went free of course. For you can’t hang a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse.” This song-chapter is a lousy combination of a lady who would not listen to anyone and a man who was wildly out of his mind with vengeance and sorrow. Just be thankful you were out of the way yourself…
Time of the Preacher Theme – This is a pretty short snippet of 0:26, where Willie just lets you know that a lot has happened, but it is actually just beginning. It is apparent that changes are on the way. I have seen enough western movies to know that you can not just go on killin’ like that and live to be a wrinkly age. The Red Headed Stranger is going to have to take a turn if this is just the beginning. If I am wrong here, it is only because every western I have seen has taught me this outlook.
Just as I Am – Willie is playing a bit of an instrumental to show the passing of time. You can actually hear him breathing into the microphone again as Trigger does a little exercise. And Trigger needs a little exercise to follow along with a piano solo anyhow. This is the wild west and some piano work is necessary as any saloon at that time without a piano player tickling the ivories on the side of the room was not worth the spit on the floor.
Denver – The Red Headed Stranger is in a city where he is anonymous. The small town feel is behind and he is in a place that is busy enough that no one cares about his business, and people judge other by the look in their eyes. But wait! A lady has taken a liking to the Red Headed Stranger! Even in a place where people judge each other by the look in their eyes? She must like a wily look in a man if this is what makes her stomach and mid-section tingle. They always say that a woman likes a challenge… ‘And they danced with their smiles on their faces.’ Well holy. This is quite a turn of events. The Red Headed Stranger has softened…
O’er the Waves – Trigger is doing the talking here, sort of in a dreamy and desert sounding tone. A kazoo accompanies. Any song with a kazoo is a good in my books. We all thought we were kazoo experts when we were kids, and maybe we were, but my kazoos doubled as bathtub bubble-makers when I was a kid. Maybe I was actually great on a kazoo. I know I was one heck of a kazoo-bubble player. There is no telling how good I could have become on plain-kazoo.
Down Yonder – This little tune was for sure playing in the bar where the Red Headed Stranger smiled at the lady who likes wily looking men. This is probably the dancing ditty that sealed the deal! Great piano jigging takes place. And more kazoo prominence!
Can I Sleep in Your Arms –Besides the beautiful sadness of the song, the reverb on Nelson’s voice is so great. Listen for it at 0:20 on the word ‘here.’ You will hear voice-reverb though this entire verse. Start the track from the beginning again and turn it up as loud as you can. The verse is so beautiful and the microphone misses nothing of the clear and crisp sound of Nelson’s voice and echoes the Red Headed Stranger’s emptiness. The stranger has opened up a little. The lyrics: ‘Can I sleep in your arms tonight lady? It’s so cold lying here all alone. And I have no hope to hold on you. And I assure you I’ll do you no wrong.’ It has just been Willie and a bass with Trigger faintly in the background and that combination of sound of that has been powerful. ‘Don’t know why but the one I love left me. Left me lonely and cold and so weak. And I need someone’s arms to hold me, till I’m strong enough to get back on my feet.’ We have just learned that even badass, former preacher, wife murdering, lover killing, sunofaguns stricken with sorrow and grief need affection too. Apparently when the lady saw the Red Headed Stranger in the tavern in Denver where people judge other’s by the look in their eyes, she saw pain and took him in like a rescue dog. She is probably a really nice lady with a big heart. It turns out that it was probably not his dancing that got her after all.
Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming) – We have got a bit of a jazzy number here. The mood has lifted some. The Red Headed Stranger got lucky last night and that is spilling over into the album. Even if the song is about broken vows, the world is a decidedly better place since the Red Headed Stranger was shown some love and got some! Is the Red Headed Stranger talking about his lost love that he shot in the first verse that broke those vows? Is the Red Headed Stranger talking about his new love in the remainder of the song and he is telling her to remember him whenever they are apart as he learned a lesson when his first love forgot him? It is hard to say, but one thing is clear: the Red Headed Stranger has a much better disposition after a little romance. I guess we all do.
Hands on the Wheel – Willie, Trigger and a bass bring the first minute of the song some incredible framework. Every song on this album that has started so simply has carried a lot of weight. The Red Headed Stranger has found what he needs to carry on. He tells her that, ‘Living is just something that I do. And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes and I found myself in you.’ That sounds like a man who is getting over what started as a pretty ugly story. The Red Headed Stranger has become an old man, sitting with a boy who we can assume is his grandchild. Things have worked out in a way that no listener could have ever thought possible at the beginning of the album. One has to think that the Red Headed Stranger has concealed his history this whole time. And you know what, I am just happy that he was able to carry on. His wife did not deserve to die for cheating on him, but the lesson we all need to remember is that red-heads usually run a hotter temperature than everyone else. Everyone knows that and maybe people forget. Obviously it slipped the mind of his first wife and look what happened to her. Red-heads are slowly going extinct in humanity, so it is no wonder that they are a little more temperamental. But, this is not just about hair color. Instead it is more about the code of the western movie theme…you can go on a killing spree, but you are going to have to clean up that act early on if you are planning on having a grandkid that you set sails and spin tales with some day.
Bandera – This is just a nice song to finish off the Red Headed Stranger album to remind you that the sound Trigger makes is probably the most distinct that you will hear come out of an acoustic guitar. Thanks Willie. Thanks for the album. It is a real treat for the ears.