by Josh Friedberg
Willie Nelson’s mainstream success began with a spare concept album (some would say “rock opera”) that went completely against the grain of country music at the time. Today, Nelson’s Outlaw persona is taken for granted, including in mainstream country circles: CMT (Country Music Television) even voted Red Headed Stranger as the #1 country album of all time.
But in 1975, this album came as a surprise to everyone, including Columbia Records. The label granted Nelson artistic control over his music, and they were shocked when they heard this bare-bones album that cost only $20,000 to make. To everyone’s surprise, the album sold millions of copies and became a beloved classic of the genre, including among rock critics.
Often forgotten, however, is the fact that Nelson didn’t write a lot of the songs on the album. This is surprising because up to this point, Nelson had been known as a songwriter of hits for other artists: in the ‘60s, his songs became hits for Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), Ray Price (“Night Life”), and others. Red Headed Stranger is also full of instrumentals and fragments that move the story along.
When I first heard this album a long time ago, it struck me how scattered this album seems for such a classic: unlike earlier Nelson albums of the time, such as 1974’s Phases and Stages, there aren’t many fully fleshed out songs of even two or three minutes. There are, however, a few exceptions: gems like his classic version of a song Ernest Tubb had made famous three decades earlier, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and the five-minute, startlingly vulnerable “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” are two standouts.
Today, I love listening to this album, but I’m still somewhat mystified by the concept, as I am with a lot of higher-level concept albums. I have trouble following the storyline, though the album does feel cohesive. This is Nelson’s most acclaimed album, but if I want a collection of songs (as opposed to a concept album), I might prefer Stardust, his highly popular 1978 collection of pop and jazz standards like “Georgia on My Mind” and “Blue Skies.”
Still, this is a classic album experience that rewards time and repeated listening.