When I was ten years old, my father bought me a ¾-sized acoustic guitar and accompanying after-school lessons at a music shop downtown. At the first lesson, my teacher asked me what kinds of songs I wanted to learn. I barely remember the conversation, but I certainly remember what I answered: Willie Nelson. That’s what I, at ten years old, wanted to learn to play. And not just any Willie Nelson song—the first song I ever learned on guitar was “Bloody Mary Morning.” At the time I had no idea what a Bloody Mary was, but I knew that song from both my mom and my dad. My mom had at one point had to explain to me what “something stronger to start off the day” might be (hint: it’s liquor). But mostly I just liked the way it sounded: Pure. Guitar and a voice and a harmonica and a fingering and rhythm that was going to be really difficult to learn. Simple but smart, and simply good.
Soon after I started learning the fingerpicking pattern for Bloody Mary Morning, the guitar got pushed aside because I didn’t have time to do that and attend my intensive ballet lessons after school. [A quarter of a century later, and I am still playing guitar and wishing I had not stopped learning it formally. Ballet? Yeah, um, it’s been a while.] But my love of Willie persisted. I felt like with Willie, whether the cheesier songs or the more minimal ballads, you were getting more than a song. You were getting a story, a character, and an almost movie-like flood of images with every quiet strum of his guitar. My most-loved Willie albums are 1998’s Teatro and Red Headed Stranger, which both offer up a spare, lonesome sound infused with Western-influence guitar technique to haunting, cinematic effect.
Red Headed Stranger is a record that, like the song “Bloody Mary Morning,” I can’t recall ever encountering for the first time. It snuck in, somewhere back there: one of those works of art—like certain songs or fictional characters or cinematographic points of view—that have been in me since I became aware of knowing songs, or knowing the lyrics to those songs, or having taste in cultural things. Since forever. It’s also one of those records that I think is perfectly itself, beautifully realized and infinitely memorable—so much so that when I pick it to be the soundtrack to another suddenly sunny San Francisco morning, I’m a bit concerned I won’t have much to say about it.
Red Headed Stranger is a “concept” album that, at the time it was released (1975), revolutionized the country music world. It is minimal, spooky, and dark—yet still contains terrific country-style songs. In the 70s, Willie Nelson and his cohorts were earning the label “outlaw country” because they were making music that contradicted the more pop, produced sound that was coming out of Nashville. Willie became a superstar with this mega-selling record and even won a Grammy. So, you know. “Outlaw” is sort of relative here.
Back to the “concept” part of concept album. This can mean many things to many people; to me it means an album that is written and recorded and designed as a whole. It means it centers on one theme, or one story. One concept to connect it all. For me, the “concept” album’s dangers are that it can become bloated, overwrought, overstated. When it works, it works entirely. And Red Headed Stranger works.
Piano and guitar and Willie’s tenuous tremor of a voice are the overriding elements here. Close your eyes and you’re in a country opera… or more like a Western film.
Indeed, what Willie Nelson and his outlaw band did with this album was make a Western record while everyone else was busy concentrating on “Country.” And it is Western, with all the associations that term carries with it, whether of the “wild” or Hollywood variety or both: the open skies of Montana, the bizarre justice mores of the American West at the dawn of the twentieth century, hard and cruel white men riding around on horses unable to express their emotions except through acts of violence.
He found them that night in a tavern in town
in a quiet little out-of-the-way place.
And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door
And they died with their smiles on their faces.
The plot is pretty simple: preacher loves woman. She cheats on him. He kills her and the guy she’s now in love with, who was a past love she’d left behind when she came out West. (Which is sad for obvious reasons of killing people, but also because the new couple seems to be so happily in love.) So, that’s two relationships ruined and two people dead. Then the preacher is sad, too, and rides horses around the great West, sometimes killing people and ruining countless other lives and relationships in the process.
The central character is classic Western material: a formerly believing, ordered man who becomes, through a romantic betrayal and his violent reaction to it, a “stranger” to all, riding the “untamed” land on his beautiful horse with a new, trigger-happy persona masking his deep loneliness and grief. This is the type of frustrating but legendary macho/vulnerable murderer/hero that the Western genre is so good at giving us.
Is this a glamorizing ode to violence, including violence of the domestic variety and the violence brought to the land by the westward expansion of white folks? Totally. It is certainly that. Just like most Westerns.
Despite, or perhaps because of these issues, the Western has always felt sad to me—the myth of it being a sad facet of our culture, as well as the reality of it being sad for many regular, struggling people at the time who must have made the journey West, contributed to the genocide of another culture and the failure to realize the rewards upon which the whole mess was predicated. There were a lot of dreams placed on us out West here, and most of those dreams were false and/or broken for the large majority of the people involved.
And, just like Western films, this story of a violent and lonely man and his journey is only palatable to the audience because it is a tale of vulnerability as well as hardness. This is Montana, in “the year of ’01.” This is the typical hard-knocks mythical West, in which a man is allowed to kill a women who tries to steal his horse, but not really supposed to cry when his girlfriend breaks his heart. So why do we like this red headed murdering stranger so much?
Because he does cry:
He cried like a baby
He screamed like a panther in the middle of the night.
And he saddled his pony
and he went for a ride
And it’s because of the preacher’s sadness that Red Headed Stranger becomes not just a classic country album, but a classic Western album. This is thanks to Willie Nelson’s songwriting abilities. The songs, many of them ballads, are sad, and often flash the listener back to other, better times in the lives of the characters, times of unending love and courtship and unlimited possibilities. They do lyrically contribute to the cool myth of the lonesome cowboy, but mostly they are about loss.
Red Headed Stranger is also an ideal example of an album that is an album. Taken one at a time, the songs yield a couple hits – “Blue Eyes Cryin in the Rain,” for one, which Nelson didn’t write but was forever identified with because of his performance of it here —but they lose their narrative impact when split up. Many of them are only refrains, fragments of songs lined up in a cohesive order. As a record, from start to finish, there is a story being told here, a sound being developed from the minimal building of haunting chord fragments through to the final reprise. Take it and mix it up and throw it on an iPod, and it’s not the same. Also, without the particular medium of vinyl, you don’t get this (click to embiggen):
The entire back cover of the record jacket is a storyboard, an illustrated short-hand for the entire narrative of the album, drawn in cartoon style with excerpts from the lyrics. How cool is that?! An album complete with characters, scenes, dialogue, and a freakin’ storyboard. Willie Nelson made a Western movie for us, and he put it on wax.
I think most people know by now that Willie Nelson wrote the song Crazy, which was made iconic by Patsy Cline. If you didn’t know that… well, now you do. While we’re on the topic of super famous songs that were written by country songwriter icons, Dolly Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” the song with which Whitney Houston sold a gazillion records. So, “country” is also a bit of a myth. Mostly, good songwriting is good songwriting. Doesn’t matter which chart it tops.