Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 34: Red Headed Stranger (Willie Nelson, 1975)

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“I guess I was trying to figure out how a man could do something as crazy as that,” Willie Nelson said in a 1992 interview. The “that” Nelson is referring to is the killing of a woman for reaching out to touch—supposedly with the intention to steal—a man’s horse. The song in which these events are relayed—“Red Headed Stranger”—does give reasons that alone could provide a logical, if still indefensible, justification: the bay pony he leads behind him belonged to his lost wife, who “lay asleep on the hillside”—that is, dead. Because of that, the bay means more to him than life; and he is wild in his sorrow.

OK, so a man’s wife is dead, and in his grief he protects her horse as a totem, to the point of killing anyone who would dare lay a hand on it. That’s the basic idea of the original song, but Nelson, egged on by his wife—who suggested his first record for Columbia Records be a concept album—saw something else in the man’s murderous action beyond grief: guilt.

And so, with “Red Headed Stranger” as the textual kernel, Nelson built a world for the song’s anti-hero, before and after the events in the song proper. We learn the man is a preacher, married, of course, but he’s been cuckolded and left alone. The shock ages him, and, as we learn in the Ecclesiastes-laced song that frames the record and checks in from time to time, “Time of the Preacher,” the time for preaching and lessons is over. The wild sorrow in the original song takes root here as he cries like a baby and screams like a panther. He sets off on his stallion—her dancing bay pony presumably in tow—to track his wife and her lover and restore his dignity. (Or so he believes.)

After a dozen records released on the RCA label in the '60s and early '70s, Nelson signed on to Atlantic Records in 1973 and recorded two albums: Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages, another concept album, like Red Headed Stranger. But Atlantic soon shuttered its country music division, leaving Nelson without a label. He’d already grown disenchanted with the ho-hum Nashville sound—the overfull production with strings and back-up singers aplenty—and the unfortunate incident of his Nashville house burning down had provided some cover to escape that scene and relocate to his home state of Texas. Nelson was a hot song-writing commodity at the time—he’d had a huge jukebox mega-hit with Patsy Cline’s version of his song “Crazy”—so he was able to strike an artistically advantageous contract with Columbia, which afforded him complete creative control—something that would become necessary when Nelson finished the record and it was first played for management. Bruce Lundvall, president of Columbia Records at the time, had proposed sweetening the thing up to give it that Nashville glow—in fact, he’d assumed at first listen it was merely a demo, so spare was the orchestration. But Waylon Jennings, Nelson’s friend who happened to be in the office with their shared manager, hopped up on Lundvall’s desk—so the story goes, anyway—and called him a “tin-eared tone-deaf son of a bitch,” who clearly didn’t get what Nelson was going for with the album. When the record went gold within a year, Lundvall supposedly sent Jennings a gold record with a note that read, “This is from that tin-eared tone-deaf son of a bitch. You were right. Here’s your album.” Red Headed Stranger would go on to become the first million-selling country album ever.

The fourth track, a medley, sutures an original song, “Blue Rock Montana”—which, in just over a minute, describes the tracking and killing of the stranger’s wife and her lover in a local tavern—to a brief iteration of the title track.

In so doing, Nelson smooths the seams between the preexisting and the new, sowing narrative seeds that will come to bloom in the B side of the record. For example, there are poetic—if gruesome—parallels between “Blue Rock Montana” and the flipside’s opener, “Denver,” which—again very briefly, just under a minute—details the stranger’s sauntering into the Colorado city of light, and spying a woman who might absolve him. Both events, the double homicide in Blue Rock and the meet-cute in Denver, take place in “a tavern in town in a quiet little out of the way place.” In Denver, “they smiled at each other as he walked through the door, and they danced with their smiles on their faces / and they danced with a smile on their face.” In Blue Rock, they—the couple that proved his wife’s infidelity—smiled at each other when he walked through the door,” and—owing to the speed of the Red Head’s draw, “they died with their smiles on their faces / they died with a smile on their face.” The songs are nearly identical in structure, harmony, and instrumentation—save the added piano in “Denver”—and it’s an incredibly effective move. Similarly, the framing device of the song “Time of the Preacher” is powerful every time it returns. The story moves forward with a familiar narrator at the helm.

“Denver” leads directly into a pair of instrumental numbers, during which we the listener imagine the red-headed stranger dancing with this new stranger—both smiling—in the out of the way tavern. First a waltz: the very popular “Over the Waves”—believe me, you’ve heard it and would recognize it—followed by a solid version of the up-tempo stomper “Down Yonder,” featuring Nelson’s sister Bobbie on piano.

After they’ve danced their smiles off, the stranger asks the woman—by way of a cover of a tender Jeannie Seely song released in 1973—if he can sleep in her arms. Here, four-fifths of the way through the tracks, we feel most powerfully the taut pull of the narrative Nelson has established against that of a preexisting cover: the narrator of “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” which of course we hear to be the voice of the stranger—a man who, remember, thus far has killed two women on his journey—gently tells his potential lover, “I assure I’ll do you no wrong,” and, “Don’t know why but the one I love left me.” In this psychologically complex dissonance, both the cover and the grand narrative are imbued with deeper, subtler meanings. Even the perspective shift from Nelson’s originals’ troubadour-like, third-person relating of story to many of the covers’ first-person POV lends a healthy dose of emotional depth to the record.

In the end, with the song “Hands on the Wheel,” the stranger and, presumably, the Denver woman seem to have settled down and had a child—he saw himself in her, and thus found a way home.

So what lessons can we learn from Red Headed Stranger? Well, practically speaking, stay the hell out of the path of ragin’ black stallions, and don’t lay a hand on a stranger’s bay pony. They’re probably not well. Also, if someone is wild in their sorrow, it’s probably best to wait it out until the morning—maybe they’ll ride on. But perhaps most importantly, if Willie Nelson says the record’s done, the record’s done.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.