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Red Headed Stranger

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Red Headed Stranger
Studio album by
ReleasedMay 1975
RecordedJanuary 1975
StudioAutumn Sound Studios, Garland, Texas
ProducerWillie Nelson
Willie Nelson chronology
Phases and Stages
Red Headed Stranger
The Sound in Your Mind
Singles from Red Headed Stranger
  1. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"
    Released: 1975
  2. "Remember Me"
    Released: 1976

Red Headed Stranger is the eighteenth studio album by American outlaw country singer Willie Nelson and released in 1975. After the wide success of his recordings with Atlantic Records, coupled with the negotiating skills of his manager, Neil Reshen, Nelson signed a contract with Columbia Records, a label that gave him total creative control over his works. The concept for the album was inspired by the "Tale of the Red Headed Stranger", a song that Nelson used to play as a disc jockey on his program in Fort Worth, Texas. After signing with Columbia, he decided to record the song, and arranged the details during his return to Austin, Texas from a trip to Colorado. It was recorded at low cost at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas. The songs featured sparse arrangements, largely limited to Nelson's guitar, piano and drums. Nelson presented the finished material to Columbia executives, who were dubious about releasing an album that they at first thought was a demo. However, Nelson had creative control, so no further production was added.

A concept album, Red Headed Stranger is about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. The content consists of songs with brief poetic lyrics and arrangements of older material such as Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", Wolfe Gilbert's "Down Yonder" and Juventino Rosas' "O'er the Waves". Despite Columbia's doubts and the limited instrumentation, Red Headed Stranger was a blockbuster among country music and mainstream audiences. It was certified multi-platinum, and made Nelson one of the most recognized artists in country music. The cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", released as a single previous to the album full release became Nelson's first number one hit. The title of the album would become a lasting nickname for Nelson. It was ranked #183 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[1] and number one on CMT's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In 2010, it was inducted to the National Recording Registry.

In 1986, Nelson starred as the Red Headed Stranger in a movie of the same name, based on the story of the album. The album has had a strong cultural impact; the song "Time of the Preacher" was used often in the British television miniseries Edge of Darkness, and its lyrics were used in the first issue of the comic Preacher.


Nelson first achieved fame as a songwriter in Nashville after writing smash hits like "Hello Walls", "Night Life", "Funny How Time Slips Away", "Pretty Paper", and "Crazy". After recording two albums for Liberty, he moved to RCA and recorded over a dozen albums, many produced by Chet Atkins, but his recordings were given the Nashville Sound treatment, orchestration that Nelson felt was largely unnecessary. In 1973, he signed to Atlantic by Jerry Wexler, who indulged Nelson's desire to use his own band in the studio and eschew commercial concerns, for US$25,000 per year, the first country artist signed by the label.[2] His first album with Atlantic was the critically acclaimed Shotgun Willie,[3] which was followed by one of the first concept albums in country music, Phases and Stages, an album that recalled his 1971 concept album Yesterday's Wine.[4] Due to the success of these recordings, Nelson signed with Columbia Records, and was given complete creative control.[5] Along with Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes, these concept albums helped lay the groundwork for the nascent outlaw country movement.

During his return to Austin, Texas after a ski trip in Colorado, Nelson was inspired by his then-wife Connie Koepke to write a western concept album. Koepke suggested the inclusion of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's "Tale of the Red Headed Stranger",[6] which Nelson sang during his radio shows on KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas, and previously, to his children at bedtime.[7] Nelson decided to write a complete story that included details of events before the ones described in the song.[8][9] As he spontaneously composed the songs, Koepke recorded the lyrics.[10] With his original writings, Nelson included in the story, Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", Wolfe Gilbert's "Down Yonder", Juventino Rosas' "O'er the Waves", Hank Cochran's "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?", Eddy Arnold's "I Couldn't Believe It Was True", and Billy Callery's "Hands on the Wheel".[7] When he arrived in Austin, Nelson recorded a demo of the songs on a tape recorder accompanied with his guitar at his ranch in Fitzhugh Road.[6]

Recording and composition[edit]

Nelson started to look for a studio in Texas to record his new material to avoid the modifications that they did to his recordings in his previous sessions. Engineer Phil York, who was hired freelance by the recently opened Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas heard about his need. York, an acquaintance of Nelson's harmonicist Mickey Raphael, offered Nelson a day of free recording to boost the popularity of the studio. Autumn's studio, a quiet room with cypress wood paneling, featured the first 24-track studio console in Texas and came equipped with a Bosendorfer concert grand piano, a 92-key instrument made in Vienna with four extra bass notes that retailed for $25,000.[7] Nelson and his band went to the trial session during January, and recorded five songs. Later, Raphael called back York, announcing that Nelson would record the entire album there.[7] After hearing the tapes by Nelson, the band started to improvise to the song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain". Disliking the result, Nelson decided to strip down the instrumentation.[11] Nelson also instructed York to undo the equalization he performed on the tracks, remarking that it was the method his producers used in Nashville.[12] The recording took five days, with an additional day for the mixing, that summed up to US$4,000 in studio costs.[11]The additional costs took the total to US$20,000.[13] Nelson featured arrangements of acoustic guitar, accompanied by piano, played by his sister Bobbie,[14] as well complementary arrangements of drums, harmonica and mandolin.[15] The sparsely instrumented acoustic arrangements caused Columbia directors to doubt the wisdom of releasing the album as presented, feeling it was under-produced and no more than a demo.[16] However, Nelson had complete creative control, and it was released without any further modifications.[13]

The story begins with "Time of the Preacher", where the character evokes his love for his wife, whom he suspects is unfaithful. In the following song "I Couldn't Believe It Was True", the infidelity is revealed. This leads to a short version of "Time of the Preacher", wherein the singer ends with the line "Now the lesson is over, and the killing's begun". The reaction of the husband is depicted by Nelson in a medley of "Blue Rock, Montana" and "Red Headed Stranger". The first song describes the double murder of the unfaithful woman and her lover by the Stranger, who states "And they died with a smile on their faces". This leads to the second song of the medley, which describes the grief of the Stranger.[17] This section is followed by Nelson's cover of the 1947 Fred Rose song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", where the fugitive laments the loss of his wife. In "Red Headed Stranger", the protagonist commits a subsequent murder—he kills a woman who merely reaches out to touch one of his horses. The horse means more to him than life because it had belonged to his wife. But the Stranger goes free because "you can't hang a man for killin' a woman who's tryin' to steal your horse".[18]

The story continues with the Stranger traveling south. In the song "Denver", the character falls in love with a woman he meets in a bar in town. One of the lines from "Blue Rock Montana" is repeated, with a variation: "And they danced with a smile on their faces". The following song "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?" shows the desire of the Stranger for redemption and love. Next is "Remember Me", where he announces that his vows to his deceased wife are broken and he is free to love. The story ends with "Hands on the Wheel", which depicts the Stranger as an old man who is accompanied by a child, presumably his grandson, and his new love. The song marks the end of the sorrow of the Stranger, and his redemption years later. The album ends with the instrumental song "Bandera".[17]

The title track, written in the 1950s by Edith Linderman Calisch and Carl Stutz and made popular by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, the Charlotte, North Carolina singer and pioneering country music television star in the early 1950s, previously had been recorded by John D. Loudermilk and Eddy Arnold, but no one had thought to build an album around it until Connie Nelson suggested the idea to her husband.[19] While the album initially was inspired by "The Red Headed Stranger", Nelson later insisted the story came together quickly after he penned the opening track "Time of the Preacher":

I took my time, all the while staying focused on the preacher's feelings...Hank Cochran's 'Can I Sleep in Your Arms' was the kind of tune the preacher would use to sing himself to sleep. I could also hear the preacher doing a beautiful old ballad by Fred Rose, 'Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain', that had been sung by everyone from Hank Williams to Gene Autry to Conway Twitty. It was another song about lost love whose mantra – 'Love is like a dying ember and only memories remain' – expressed the overall theme and tied all the loose ends together.[20]

Billy Callery, a young songwriter who met Nelson in Austin, wrote "Hand on the Wheel" while "Just As I Am" lent the album a spiritual component.[7] While concept albums were not new to country music, with artists like Johnny Cash and Mickey Newbury having released atmospheric albums with linked songs and unifying themes previously, Red Headed Stranger was a gothic western epic, and despite Yesterday's Wine, the concept album Willie so adored from his RCA days, this new album was his first true concept album, composed of new songs and old, arranged in a coherent sequence that told a fiercely emotional story.[21] In Chet Flippo's essay for the 2000 reissue of the album, Nelson commented "I wanted it to be real sparse. I had in mind, I remember, some of my favorite records: Eddy Arnold with just his guitar; Ernest Tubb with just his guitar; so I wanted to have that kind of feel with maybe just some help along the way to keep it from getting too, you know, obnoxious. Or monotonous."

Columbia reaction[edit]

By all accounts, CBS was underwhelmed when they heard the finished product. Nelson later remembered that "when the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, 'Why are you turning in a demo?' 'Ain't no demo', I explained. 'This is the finished product.'"[22] When Nelson asked the exec what a finished record was supposed to sound like, the exec replied "Anything but this. The songs feel disconnected. The mood is too down. And the sound is far too flat. You need to go back in and polish it."[22] Nelson's manager Neil Reshen and Waylon Jennings traveled to New York City to play the album for Columbia president Bruce Lundvall, whose suggestion that the album be sent to Nashville producer Billy Sherrill for sweetening so infuriated Jennings that he called Lundvall a "tone-deaf, tin-eared sonofabitch".[23] When he first heard it, Sherrill incredulously asked "Did he make this in his living room? It's a piece of shit! It sounds like he did this for about two bucks. It's not produced."[24] With Nelson retaining complete artistic control, Columbia had no choice but to release the record. Reflecting on the album's monumental success, CBS executive Rick Blackburn later commented "Red Headed Stranger was a hit for all the wrong reasons. It didn't follow the formula, the fashionable mix of the day. There were 1,000 reasons that record should not be a hit. But the Red Headed Stranger project took on Willie's personality and became a hit for the right reasons – because it was Willie Nelson. It was Willie's statement."[25]


Red Headed Stranger reached number one on the Billboard chart for Top Country Albums,[26] and number 28 during a 43-week stay in the Top LPs & Tapes chart.[27] On March 11, 1976, it was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America, and on November 21, 1986, it was certified double-platinum.[28]

Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic5/5 stars[29]
Texas MonthlyFavorable[30]
Christgau's Record GuideB–[31]
Mother JonesFavorable[32]
Rolling Stone5/5 stars[33]
CMJ New Music MonthlyFavorable[35]
Sputnikmusic4.5/5 stars[36]
Zagat Survey5/5 stars[37]
Encyclopedia of Popular Music5/5 stars[38]

Rolling Stone writer Paul Nelson wrote: "Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled... Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to create a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental. That he did not write much of the material makes his accomplishment no less singular."[33] Meanwhile, critic Robert Christgau wrote, "Some of the individual pieces are quite nice, but the gestalt is the concept album at its most counterproductive—the lyrics render the nostalgic instrumental parts unnecessarily ironic and lose additional charm in narrative context."[31]

Music critic Chet Flippo wrote an article in Texas Monthly that was titled "Mathew, Mark, Luke and Willie: Willie Nelson's latest album is more than a good country music; it's almost Gospel": "The difference between Nelson's Red Headed Stranger and any current C&W album, and especially what passes for a soundtrack for Nashville, is astounding. What Nelson has done is simply unclassifiable; it is the only record I have heard that strikes me as otherworldly. Red Headed Stranger conjures up such strange emotions and works on so many levels that listening to it becomes totally obsessing".[30]

Billboard described the album as "lots of instrumental work, with particularly fine piano by Bobbie Nelson, and the usual highly stylized Willie Nelson vocals".[39] In Mother Jones Joe Nick Patoski wrote: "Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist".[32]

In 1996, Nell Zink wrote in CMJ New Music Monthly: "His Red Headed Stranger was the Sgt. Pepper's of country music, the first record to follow a coherent theme instead of merely compiling radio singles".[35] Stephen Thomas Erlewine in AllMusic described Red Headed Stranger as "really elusive, as the themes get a little muddled and the tunes themselves are a bit bare. It's undoubtedly distinctive – and it sounds more distinctive with each passing year – but it's strictly an intellectual triumph and, after a pair of albums that were musically and intellectually sound, it's a bit of a letdown, no matter how successful it was".[29] In 2003, it was included among the top 1,000 albums of Zagat Survey magazine, and was rated five stars out of five. The magazine wrote "Supporters (of the album) spread the gospel that it's just a quintessential outlaw recording, but perhaps the greatest country album ever with a spare style that changed the way C&W was played".[37]

Sputnikmusic wrote: "The Red Headed Stranger is simple and bare. Following the story of a preacher man that kills his cheating wife and her lover, ol' Willie spins the tale with a laid back nonchalance that just seems to ooze out of him, his aching chords and somber melodies encapsulating the futility and pain of his character's situation [...] The Red Headed Stranger is timeless. Willie Nelson's captivating story telling, and the minimalist majesty of his music fills a well worn grove in the hearts of those that enjoy the folk roots of the United States."[36]

Red Headed Stranger's critical success cemented Nelson's outlaw image,[40] and made him one of the most recognized artists in country music. The title of the album became a long lasting nickname for him.[41] The cover of Fred Rose's 1945 song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", that had been released as a single previous to the album, became his first number one hit as a singer.[42] In 2004 the album was ranked at number 184 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[10] maintaining the rating in a 2012 revised list,[43] and number one in Country Music Television's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music in 2006.[26] In 2009 it was adopted into the National Recording Registry because Red Headed Stranger is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States".[44]

Film and popular culture[edit]

At an appearance at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music venue in Austin, Texas, Nelson met publisher and screenwriter William D. Wittliff. Because of the success of the album, Wittliff decided to write a script for Nelson based on the story of the Red Headed Stranger. In 1979, Wittliff finished a draft of the project, which was turned over to Universal Studios. The studio budgeted the film at $14 million and sent the script to Robert Redford, who turned it down. The movie project was tabled, and Wittliff and Nelson had to buy the script back from Universal. The script then went to HBO, who assigned the project a budget of $5 million, but this project was not completed either. Finally, Nelson and Wittliff decided to finance the film themselves. Nelson portrayed the role of the stranger, and the movie was released in 1986.[45]

The first track, "Time of the Preacher", was used in Bob Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara and episodes of the 1985 television drama Edge of Darkness.[46] The lyrics to "Time of the Preacher" were used in the opening pages of the first issue of the Vertigo comic book Preacher,[47] with the song being used in the opening of the premiere of the TV series based on the comic.[48]

The complete album was performed and recorded by Carla Bozulich in 2003. The Red Headed Stranger included a guest appearance by Nelson.[49]

An episode of the TV series Monk, "Mr. Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger", guest-stars Willie Nelson.[50] In the episode, Nelson is accused of murder.

Track listing[edit]

Original release[edit]

Side one
1."Time of the Preacher"Willie Nelson2:26
2."I Couldn't Believe It Was True"Eddy Arnold, Wally Fowler1:32
3."Time of the Preacher Theme"Nelson1:13
4."Blue Rock Montana" / "Red Headed Stranger" (medley)Nelson / Carl Stutz, Edith Lindeman1:36
5."Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain"Fred Rose2:18
6."Red Headed Stranger"Carl Stutz, Lindeman4:00
7."Time of the Preacher Theme"Nelson0:25
8."Just As I Am"Charlotte Elliott, William B. Bradbury1:45
Side two
2."O'er the Waves"Juventino Rosas, arranged by Willie Nelson0:47
3."Down Yonder" (played by Bobbie Nelson)L. Wolfe Gilbert1:56
4."Can I Sleep in Your Arms"Hank Cochran5:24
5."Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming)"Scotty Wiseman2:52
6."Hands on the Wheel"Bill Callery4:22

Reissue (2000)[edit]

The album was reissued by Columbia/Legacy in 2000. The new issue features remastered sound, as well as the inclusion of previously unreleased songs.[51]

Track 1-15 were from the original release
16."Bach Minuet in G" (arranged by Nelson)Christian Petzold, falsely attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach0:37
17."I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)"Hank Williams3:31
18."A Maiden's Prayer"Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska, Bob Wills2:14
19."Bonaparte's Retreat"Pee Wee King, Redd Stewart2:26


Chart positions[edit]


Chart (1975) Peak
US Top Country Albums (Billboard)[52] 1
US Billboard 200[53] 28


Year Song Chart Peak position[54]
1975 "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
Billboard Hot 100 21
1976 "Remember Me" Billboard Hot Country Singles 2
Billboard Hot 100 67


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