Record Bin: The ragged and dust-covered heart of Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger”

Authored By pitulah

Willie Nelson is an American outlaw, both in terms of his music and his personal life. His bucolic stories of cowboys, lost loves and the feeling of being drawn to the wild places in the world have given his records an immutable sense of authenticity and shared history. These are songs that have lived for more years than can be recounted and are fueled by the collective consciousness of those people who helped shape the American landscape in incalculable ways. His records are country music personified-a wide array of stories told around campfires, passed from generation to generation by those who would have them remembered and not lost to the passing of time or convenience.

Born during the Great Depression and raised by his grandparents (his parents having divorced and left him and his sister in their care), Nelson was given a guitar by his grandfather when he was 6 and wrote his first song the following year. He kept himself out of the cotton fields by performing in dance halls, taverns and honky tonks from the age of 13 and on through high school. Channeling the spirits of his musical heroes-including Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb-he soon found that playing guitar for people was far more exciting to him than the menial jobs he took to pay his way when he was younger.

Nelson’s first band was The Texans, a band formed by his sister’s husband, Bud Fletcher, and they performed mostly in local honky tonks-but they also had a recurring spot on KHBR in Hillsboro, Texas. This band lasted until he left school in 1950 and joined the United States Air Force, a stint that lasted less than a year. Upon his return home, he married Martha Matthews and began studying agriculture at Baylor University. But this didn’t last long, and he soon dropped out to focus on his music.

He recorded his first two songs, “The Storm Has Just Begun” and “When I’ve Sung My Last Hillbilly Song,” in 1955. And though neither brought him money or substantial fame, they began a career that would last for decades and have an immeasurable influence on thousands of musicians.  

After writing a few more songs and getting them into the hands of singers like Faron Young, Ray Price and Roy Orbison-not to mention the most famous of his penned hits, “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline turned into the biggest jukebox hit of all time-Nelson received the support of his labels and began producing albums that struck a nerve with both country and rock audiences. His rejection of the glossy Nashville aesthetic led him to create and sustain the outlaw country sound, along with Waylon Jennings and a handful of other like-minded artists.

And while many people will hold to their own opinions of what best demonstrates his abilities as a songwriter and musician, his 1975 concept album, “Red Headed Stranger,” seems far and away the best choice. After having spent time with Atlantic Records, he signed with Columbia Records to release this album. He was given total control to make any sort of album he wanted. And so he wrote and recorded an album inspired by the song, “Tale of the Red Headed Stranger,” which tells the story of a nameless man who shoots a woman after she tries to steal his dead wife’s horse. It’s not exactly a happy or optimistic song, but it does set the stage for a mournful and emotionally biting set of songs. 

Nelson’s album altered the story a bit by having the man on the run from the law for killing his wife and her lover. The album opens with “Time of the Preacher,” wherein he reveals his love for his wife, even as he suspects her infidelity. On the next song, “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True,” her deception is revealed. A short reprise of the opening song follows, with the stranger saying, “Now the lesson is over, and the killing’s begun.” Over the next few songs, Nelson dives into the actual murder and the grief that ensues from this violent act. There is abject remorse and uncertainty on the part of the stranger. It’s later when he kills again-this time, the woman he thinks is stealing his wife’s horse.

But all is not lost, and redemption and forgiveness are soon to come in the arms of a woman he meets in a bar (“Denver”). This leads to a series of songs that depict the stranger’s renewed sense of love and his letting go of the vows to his late wife. He finds love again, and his story ends with “Hands on the Wheel,” a track that finds the narrator as an old man, accompanied by who we can assume are his grandchild and wife. The story is over for the “Red Headed Stranger,” and a measure of rest is given to him in the form of instrumental closer “Bandera.” These songs are spare and austere, with generally only an acoustic guitar and piano for company.

“Red Headed Stranger” is perhaps Nelson’s most well-known and beloved record-and with good reason. It encapsulates what made his music and his rustic personality so affecting and emotionally present. And more so than any of his other records, it allowed him the perfect platform to show how convincing and inclusive these sounds could be. Forever after associated with this image of the lonesome cowboy, Nelson has continued to explore these familiar landscapes with friends and family, and has never once sat back to stare idly out the window. And in that aspect, he certainly is the embodiment of his own creation; he is, and will always be, the redheaded stranger with a guitar in his hand.

Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.