WILLIE NELSON’S RED-HEADED STRANGER : inducted to The Library of Congress National Recording Registry, June 23, 2009
A friend of mine recently asked me for a list of great country albums. The recent shift in country music to “rock music with a fiddle” has shifted the great country music of past decades completely off the map, and it was difficult for him to find evidence of what country albums are truly great and/or influential. Modern country is more influenced by ‘90s guitar pop than by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard, so I compiled a list of albums. I struggled with raking the albums, but I could certainly group them into “the Top Ten”. And of those top ten, two of them were from Willie Nelson. Interestingly, despite a career that has spanned over 50 years and a discography of over 100 albums, the two albums were Willie’s two concept albums from the early 1970s: Phases and Stages and Red-Headed Stranger. Unlike typical country albums, whose songs were a collection of stories that generally stay within a fairly limited set of topics (love, death, heartbreak, family, alcohol), Willie’s albums of the early 70s were album-length stories. Phases and Stages was the story of a marriage that had fallen apart. Loosely based on Nelson’s recent second divorce, Side One of the album was a series of songs detailing the divorce process from the perspective of a long-suffering wife of an unfaithful man. Side Two were the songs from the perspective of the husband. As far as I know, it was the first concept album ever released by a country artist. But the album’s theme was as depressing as the individual themes in country music. At the end of Side One, the wife dances alone drunkenly in a bar, now over the hill and looking for love, but aware that she’ll never trust enough to be happy. And the unfaithful husband closes out Side Two with the admission that his poor character is set in stone, and he’ll never be a good husband or man. It wasn’t an album of redemption; it was a tale of word-down acceptance. It was a tale told in millions of divorces, and as such, it was a brutally honest album. Which made the redemption on the follow-up Red-Headed Stranger even more striking.
As I make my way through my forties, I’m regularly surprised to see the periods of uncertainty and discord in the marriages of people in my age group. When I think back to my own childhood, I think of how many marriages I saw fall apart in the couples’ late 30s and early 40s. Willie Nelson was 38 when his second marriage ended after his wife found a bill from a local hospital for the birth of a daughter Willie had fathered behind his wife’s back. Phases and Stages was a deeply personal album, and one that resolved itself sadly – as his marriage had. After marrying the mother of his new daughter, Nelson released songs on compilation records as part of the burgeoning outlaw country movement, and Shotgun Willie, an album of successful, charting country songs. Given a few years of distance, Willie began to see redemption as possible. Columbia Records was excited to sign Willie Nelson in 1974, and gave him creative control on the first album, which was to be Willie’s testament to redemption. Red-Headed Stranger was delivered in 1975, much to Columbia’s disappointment. The album was the story of a preacher who discovers his wife in the middle of an affair and shots the wife and her lover dead. He then goes on the run, kills a potential horse thief, eventually falls in love and wants to change for the new love. Unlike Phases and Stages, Red-Headed Stranger ends with the preacher – many years later – walking with his wife and their grandchild. For the first time on the album, the preacher isn’t loaded with sorrow. The theme was decidedly like a Western movie, and Nelson used the simple instruments and arrangements of the frontier West (the album was only acoustic guitar, upright piano, and harmonica). Columbia Records was (not surprisingly) upset. They could not figure out how to release a concept album with outdated arrangements that ends with a murderer living a long and happy life with a wife and generations of happy offspring. They needn’t have worried. Released with little marketing push, Red-Headed Stranger quickly shot to number 1 on the country album charts and the song “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” – the preacher’s lamenting song for the wife he murdered – went to number 1 in the country charts and number 21 in the Hot 100 charts.
When I was compiling the list of greatest country albums for my friend, part of the reason I listed Phases and Stages and Red-Headed Stranger in the Top Ten is the bravery Willie showed in releasing them. Country music had been so prescriptive for so long, concept albums and throwback arrangements were unbelievably bold risks to take. But the entire outlaw country movement is based on the artist’s confidence that they know what an audience might like, despite what precedent or market studies might prove. And what Willie Nelson understood was the fragile period of the people his age. Willie had also seen marriages falling apart around him, and while he could easily write a song or two which highlighted this phenomenon, he chose instead to create albums that worked through the entire process. Most country artists would have been comfortable simply crafting a song about loneliness or loss. But Willie examined these crumbling relationships in all their honest complexity. Angry songs about betrayal segued directly into songs of longing for the betrayer which led directly into a song of relief and finished with a song spent remembering the good times… which is exactly how a rocky relationship feels. Looking at Red-Header Stranger’s lyrics from an objective standpoint, it is indeed an album about a murderer who gets rewarded with a great life. But placed in the world of the frontier west (where running away from a lawless life to be re-created and redeemed in a new city was common. See ‘Earp, Wyatt’.), audiences overlooked the legal ramifications and focused on the idea of betrayal and redemption. Audiences ignored the preacher’s lack of judicial punishment, because so many fans of the album could empathize with the preacher’s nagging memory of the smiles that his wife and her lover had on their faces when he shot them dead. Prison, no prison… the preacher definitely received some punishment. The entire album – good and bad – is punishment. In the end, though, there will be deliverance.
When the National Recording Registry adopted Red-Headed Stranger for inclusion in 2009, it stated that it was selected because the album was “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States.” Many thought it was because Willie had created a nice homage to western arrangements. Others thought it was the power of the song “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”. But I believe it I important because it addresses – in painfully honest detail – the painful journey so many marriages go through, particularly at the same time in life that Nelson went through it. Phases and Stages was written for the marriages that fall apart. Red-Headed Stranger was for everyone who walked through that fire, whether the relationship survived or not. But it was his assurance that things could end up okay, no matter how horrible they seem in the midst of it. It’s a classic message. A timeless message. And made for one of the greatest country albums of all time.