Willie Nelson has been part of our collective consciousness far longer than most of us realize. Before the formally ponytailed master of song was singing “Stardust”, “Always on my Mind” and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (none of which he wrote) he was writing hits for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Roy Orbison (“Pretty Paper”) and Ray Price (“Night Life”).
Following the brilliant Phases and Stages, Red Headed Stranger is a brilliant concept album based on the song of the same name. Nelson’s album is a stunning mix of originals and classic tunes, including “Time of the Preacher,” “Can I Sleep In Your Arms” and his trademark hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Each song is recorded in a natural, unfussy way befitting the sparse arrangements and the need to bring the singer’s inimitable voice front and center.
Impex Records 180-gram LP is the new reference for clarity, realism and above all, replicating Willie Nelson’s legendary vocal timbre with you-are-there intimacy.
In 1975, with complete artistic control written into his new Columbia Records contract, Willie Neslon enters Autumn Sound, a small Garland, Texas studio, to record a sparely arranged concept album based on the semi-obscure song “Red Headed Stranger”, written by Carl Stutz, a Richmond, VA based radio announcer and Edith Lindeman Calisch, the amusement critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper. The pair was best known for writing “Little Things Mean A Lot,” which was a hit single for the pop star Kitty Kallen back in 1954 and featured on the wildly popular TV show “Your Hit Parade.” Stutz went on to become a high school math teacher.
The song is about a stranger who rides into a town one day on his “raging black stallion,” still yearning for his late beloved who “lays asleep on the hillside.” He’s “bitter in his sorrow,” and it’s best not to mess with him. His advise is to “wait ’till tomorrow, and maybe he’ll ride on again.” He’s got a bay in tow belonging to his dead love that catches the attention of a “yellow haired Lady,” who befriends him in the bar. He buys her a few drinks and gives her some money. She follows him out and tries to grab the bay. “He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her.”
Nelson constructed a prequel to the song and using country standards written by Eddie Arnold (“I Couldn’t Belive It was True”), Fred Rose (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), Hank Cochran and others, along with originals, built the story around a fugitive on the run for having killed his wife and her lover. It ends with Bill Callery’s “Hands on the Wheel,” which suggests that in his old age, the stranger has been redeemed. “Now my hand’s on the wheel of something that’s real and I feel like I’m goin’ home.”
Nothing like this had ever been tried in the country genre, and despite Caolumbia’s trepidation, the album went to number one on the Country charts and eventually went gold and double platinum.
If the album was a sculpture, it would be one of those horsey things you’d expect to see on the desks of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. It’s pure Americana.
The spare arrangements for guitars, mandolin, piano, harmonica, bass and drums leave plenty of room for Willie’s voice, which appropriately dominates.
There are musical interludes that move the story along and in a pre-VCR era, this was an album you could put on and create a wide-screen Cinemascope, Technicolor movie in your head as the songs took you through the carefully plotted narrative.
The sonics are superb, with a spaciously laid out, cleanly and naturally rendered instrumental bed, in front of which Nelson’s voice floats. If you love Willie’s voice, and who doesn’t, this is an opportunity to get as close to it as you’ll find on record. It’s even better recorded than on Stardust and while that album of standards is great, this one captures more of the pure essence that is Willie Nelson.
The IMPEX reissue mastered by George Marino at Sterling Sound is deluxe in every way: the record is 180g pressed at RTI, the artwork is carefully scanned and reproduced, including the original’s lyric insert, and the paper over cardboard jacket is what you expect for a premium priced reissue. There’s an earlier Columbia/Legacy vinyl edition still out there for half the price: it sounds half as good. Great late night listening and easy to recommend for both music and sound.
DAN MEINWALD, POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE, MARCH-APRIL, 2011
This 1975 LP was a phenomenal success despite its uncharacteristic oddness. By this time, Willie Nelson was an established superstar, so he – but few others – could get away with a concept LP in the country genre. The storyline is about a preacher on the run for murdering his wife and her lover (so far, so C&W). But Nelson eschews the usual Grond Ol’ Opry histrionics and melodrama, instead opting for a lean, personal telling that owes more to his outlaw persona than to commercial country fare. For that alone, it deserves kudos, proving that country fans aren’t necessarily knuckle-dragging rednecks who worship Garth Brooks or the mullet-crowned.
PHILLIP HOLMES, DAGOGO.COM, OCTOBER 2012
Being from Texas, I have always had a fondness for Willie, but perhaps not the same Willie that Audiophiles know, that being the Stardust version of Willie. Stardust was an album of standards, beautifully arranged and produced by Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs). The great sound and easy going music made it a regular in many an audiophile’s rotation. Stardust never would’ve happened without the smashing success of Red Headed Stranger, Willie’s first album on Columbia, the second full-blown concept album in a row, following Phases and Stages issued on Atlantic, and the first recording sessions where Nelson was given full creative control. Willie had just left Atlantic after the Erteguns shut down their country experiment, allowing Willie to leave his contract. The events hastened the departure of Jerry Wexler from Atlantic, the man who signed Willie to Atlantic and produced Phases and Stages. Willie signed with Columbia where he’d be given much more control of his work. Red Headed Stranger was his first fruits. Basically, Red Headed Stranger is the story of a preacher that shot his cheating wife and her lover, then roamed around, where he shot another girl—this Red Headed Stranger is one mean SOB!
After some descending chords on unison guitar, bass and piano, and a dramatic use of silence, “Time Of The Preacher” starts off jarringly with the lonesome high tenor of Willie. The song is almost desolate. It’s just missing the gently blowing wind. The entire album is very sparsely instrumented. There’s more open space than music in this album. Willie uses silence and the dramatic pause as an instrument. The bare boned approach carries straight through, and reaches its most basic in Bobbie Nelson’s unaccompanied piano in the instrumentals. The music is an eclectic mix of old and new, with Willie contributing “Time of the Preacher”, “Denver” and “Bandera”.
The commercial and musical high point is “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, written by Fred Rose and first recorded by Roy Acuff in 1945. It’s clean and emotionally honest, showing Willie Nelson is just as good as an interpreter as a song writer. He owns the song and it became a big hit, peaking at #21 on the “hot 100” and #1 on the country charts. It was the first time most listeners had heard Willie Nelson. The album went double platinum, and marked his arrival as a “superstar”.
The music here is a little too difficult for me to casually enjoy, almost the opposite of the finely produced sheen and sparkle of Stardust. It’s not a toe-tapper. It’s not the slickly produced product commonly heard in country music in those days. Mostly, it demands attention and rewards your close attention.
The sound of the Impex reissue literally destroyed my original, a Columbia travesty. It’s the same story with so many pop masterpieces issued by Columbia in the ‘70s: good music, horribly mastered and pressed. Had it not been for the advent of the compact disc, we might have given up on Columbia completely. Thankfully, the studio sound here is excellent, if dry and occasionally acerbic. The vinyl is very quiet, and was mastered at Sterling. There’s a liquidity that comes out, especially during piano passages, that I didn’t know existed. It’s a successful reissue and easily recommended. I also recommend the other albums recorded in this important period, Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages, The Sound In Your Mind and The Troublemaker. What’s interesting about all these releases is how they have a distinct personality. If you’ve only heard Stardust, then you haven’t really heard Willie Nelson.