MUSIC. RESPONSE. | “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson
Twenty-twenty. A year where toilet paper anxiety became a thing and the impenetrable density of the idiot atmosphere choked anyone not wearing a mask. It was also the year I found the best way to shoot your way out of a doom-scrolling saloon was to put on a record and enjoy it in the manner envisioned by the artist.
Today we’re dropping the needle on Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger.” For those playing along at home, here is your needle drop. (Turn shuffle off).
Music is like a jangly set of keys to a secret door. I don’t care how tightly guarded your thought fortress is, or what secrets you think you’re hiding in that head of yours, as the Village People told us, you can’t stop it. Music slithers on into your ear holes and what it will do in there is anyone’s guess. In the case of Red Headed Stranger, it builds an entire world.
The Red Headed Stranger is a vast, dusty landscape that appears inside your brain, right from the very first song. It’s a long thirsty drink that opens up your throat at the edge of a canyon, knowing that if you yell, the echo will carry. It’s poke-along dirt roads, rocky crags, and dusty saloons, the footfalls of tired horses with sleepy cowboys perched on their backs. Shifting eyes at train stations. Chaw spat upon sleeping dogs. Cowpokes crowded around campfires. You get the idea.
X. You are here.
I’m guessing they used the phrase Concept Album when Red Headed Stranger first came out in 1975. That seems a little…not enough. Concept Album reveals the goal but hides the brilliance of the method by which it is achieved. And believe me, the creative contortionism exhibited by expert crafter Willie “the Weaver” Nelson here, would put the most accomplished scrapbooker to shame. The way he assembles the disparate pieces into something that makes sense is just… genius.
If you’ve never even heard of this record, here’s the rough concept. Take a bunch of completely unrelated songs that you didn’t write, stitch them together with some songs you did write specifically to sew those other songs together and create a narrative quilt about love and murder and love. And murder. And redemption (I guess). And a horse. And have it work perfectly.
Shuffle mode will never reveal this narrative. Side One. Side Two. In that order. Play Music. The door that’s kicked open here flips a switch in the control room of your brain and an ENTIRE EPIC COWBOY SOAP OPERA flickers to life in the theatre of your mind.
The story is one thing—and we’ll get to that in a minute—but the actual sound of this record is something else. It’s sparse and breathy, with a handful of instruments, and Willie’s voice simply a narrative river on which the whole thing floats. It’s as simple and uncluttered as the world it’s set in. This apparently made his new label nervous—they wanted more cowbell, but Willie said no, more cowboy—but everybody won in the end. Willie’s tone is measured and precise and he doesn’t rush, and any time you put this record on it will change the temperature of the room. The story feels weighty and real, and as listeners we are gently set upon a rubber tube to bob downriver, watching the players upon the shore. The red-headed stranger. The events that occur around him. The drama. The romance. The killing.
This is a clever record, and I don’t mean it in that patronizing, “Oh, who’s a clever clogs then?” way. It’s clever because if you never realize that all the pieces together make another thing entirely, it’s still a great record. And while I can’t direct you on what issue sounds the best or point you at the Discogs version you should buy, let me just say this. There are reissues that are nice and fresh and new and shiny and have a substantial feel in your hand. But the narrative is heavy and substantial enough on its own. This is one of those records I want you to find at a garage sale, or crate diving. Find a copy that’s been loved. It’s the kind of record that feels like it deserves to be discovered while panning for gold in someone else’s collection.
OK, so it’s 2020 and this year has really put the brakes on that kind of activity, but record stores are hurting so find a used copy online at your favorite store. I picked up a copy for $15 from Spatula City, and the cover has seen some life, but the vinyl was looked after and it plays great.
To close (for those who don’t want to read the next section on the actual story), I find myself still wondering: Chicken or egg? Did Willie say, “I want to weave together some songs I didn’t write with some songs I will write and create a love/murder narrative?” Or did it go the other way? “I’ve written some songs, now what are some other songs that would complement them and help me create a story?” I’ll break out the Google machine and see what I can dig up, but if you know the answer, leave me the details in the comments. I love nerd talk.
And now, for no particular reason, I shall give you a summary (short/long) of the epic narrative,
First song off the rank is “Time of the Preacher,” written by Mr. Willie Nelson. This song is a hardworking song, in that it comes back multiple times during this record to help move the story along, set the scene, and at times implant an ‘oh shit, what’s about to go down’ tone. Basically, it’s the connective tissue that holds all the song muscles together.
We learn it’s “the year of ‘01.” I’m not exactly sure if Preacher time is code for something, but perhaps it’s a time when lots of folks are coming up with unasked for opinions and have no trouble sharing them with anyone who happens by. It would be like saying “It was the time of the blogger”, which was also around ’01, but a century later. In other words, an irritating time.
We are at Willie’s campfire now, sitting at his feet and watching flame shadows flicker across his beard. Wait, is he the preacher? Or is the dude in the story also a preacher? Tell me more, Willie.
What’s that you say? Oh-one, yeah, I got that. He loves a lady and she chucked him for some other bloke? Oh, shit, he’s not taking it well at all, is he? He cried like a baby and screamed like a panther in the middle of the night, you say? Seems like a little bit of a drama queen, so of course he’s riding off in some kind of adolescent huff.
“Now the preaching is over,” croons Willie. “The lesson’s begun.”
As that song leaves the stage, “I Couldn’t Believe it was True” steps on. This one was not penned by Willie and it basically sets up the general feeling of betrayal that has set our stranger on his path. “I’ll try to forgive,” he says, “But I cannot forget.” This is a code lyric for: “I’ll try to be good, but I have poor impulse control.” We’ll hear more about that shortly, but for now, we’ll quickstep through this one and straight back to the gentle campfire narrator with the “Time of the Preacher theme.” It’s a small update to really drive home the stranger’s state of mind. Seriously, he’s tried and tried to forgive her, but dangit, he just can’t let it go. Willie twists the tension knife a little more: “Now the lesson is over,” he croons, “and the killing’s begun.”
Side note: Kid, if you’ve got halls of memories and they’re echoing with lies, open a goddamned window and air that shit out. You’re never going to move past it if you keep bumping into it in the halls. Just my two cents.
In the next song, “Blue Rock Montana / Red Headed Stranger”, we learn for the first time that this jealous sunnovabitch is a ginger. If you believe in temper stereotypes (my brother is a redhead and I’ve seen him throw spanners across paddocks in fits of mechanic-ing rage, so I do), this information is all the hothead red flag you need. In this song, our hero(?) finds his love and her new squeeze in a tavern and promptly shoots them both. When I say promptly, I mean, like, instantly. He walks in, catches the adulterers smile at each other in what I can only assume he interprets as a ‘take a look at that sucker’ way, and they die with those shit-eating grins still on their faces. Ha! Showed you! Er…
Does he feel remorse for this? Not sure. From the lines “don’t cross him, don’t boss him” (taken from the song Red Headed Stranger that’s coming up soon), I’m getting the sense there was a whole lot of victim-blaming going on here. But we have no time to analyze as this whole incident has set him on his path of drifting around the landscape like some kind of self-loathing tumbleweed. “Why do I have such poor impulse control?” croons Willie (in my version of this song).
Time is passing now. We measure it by the volume of feeling sorry for myself tears as the song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” slopes in.
Written by Fred Rose, when woven into this murderous narrative the lyrics take on new meaning people would perhaps miss if simply listening to it as a standalone. This guy is lamenting the loss of his love (let’s not forget, by his own hand) and is all mopey about it. But he still can’t let her go. He’s determined to find her in the afterlife for some extracurricular hand-holding, after which he’ll probably shoot her again. But I’m projecting. It’s a pretty interlude that sets up his state of mind as he continues to tumbleweed his way around. Look, there he is. Weeping on his horse. Oh woe.
We’re getting close to the end of SIDE ONE now, but before you stand and get ready to flip it, there’s a touch more killing on today’s docket.
The Red Headed Stranger, cemented in his self-hating drifter role, clip-clops into town on a frightening black stallion, leading a bay horse. His lost love is asleep on the hillside…. (Dude, she ain’t lost, nor asleep. You killed her.) Anyhoo, he’s got these two nags. The bay was his wife’s horse and I guess he’s dragging it around with him as some kind of constant reminder that she used to be there, on that horse, back when they were happy, and he hadn’t shot her. A physical manifestation of his halls of memory that requires hay. As he rides into town his arrival catches the eye of a yellow-haired lady and things go downhill from there. Mostly for the yellow-haired lady.
She spies the bay from the window and gets all gooey inside. Willie sings that she laid her “greedy eyes on the bay” and I think we’re supposed to take that as meaning she has horse thief tendencies. But having grown up in a rural area, I know what’s going on here. It is obvious.
The yellow-haired lady is a ‘horsey girl’. Horsey girls are obsessed with horses. They love everything about them. To control a horse is their dream. You have to be careful with horsey girls, because the horsey will always mean more to them than the lover, and they will spend their days conceiving of ways to buy a new bridle for their horsey or researching braid patterns for their beloved’s mane. This yellow-haired lady is a horsey girl and 100% does not deserve what is about to befall her as she wants to pet this bay (and no doubt drain its life energy as she runs her horsey girl hand down its flank—a special power all horsey girls have).
“I must touch that horse and feed on its energy.” This is her goal.
She drinks with the red-headed stranger in the bar and mistakenly assumes that she has bonded with him. Has made some kind of connection. He is not interested, and she’s so horse-blind she misses all the signs. She follows him outside. Reaches for the horse. AHaaha! Lookit this beautiful bay! BANG! He shoots her. Poor. Impulse. Control.
This guy has dead women all over him. She’s dead. His wife’s dead. But horse thieves get rough justice in ’01 and here comes the callous canter of a line delivery that really takes your breath away. He goes free, of course, because “You can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman who’s trying to steal his horse.” Again, your honor. Horsey girl defense.
It’s staggering how well this song fits into Willie’s story so far. With the backstory he set up, the whole song, written in 1953, takes on new meaning. It adds just that extra layer of poop-human to this 7-layer shitheel dip of a man.
We close out on the “Time of the Preacher” theme and a little instrumental to give us all a much-needed breather. I mean, that was pretty intense. Lot of heartbreak and death on SIDE ONE. Let’s turn the record over.
Now our boy is in Denver, hiding in this city where people don’t really give a shit what you’ve done or where you’ve been or how many ladies you’ve left sleeping on hillsides. It feels like time’s past here, and we hope that maybe a little growing up has taken place.
Enter a new lady.
She sees him first and the smitten’s for the gettin’. They smile at each other and in an epic callback to the scene where our Red Headed Stranger shoots the two adulterers, “They danced with their smiles on their faces.” This is love’s bloom on rocky ground. I’m on the edge of my seat and wondering: “Will he tell her about his poor impulse control before or after the sexy times?”
Then comes the honeymoon period piano interlude which I took to symbolize courtship hours. You know, he’s putting in the time and they’re having fun and probably playing lots of gin rummy and he’s letting her win. It’s a jaunty beat, this piano tune. A kind of come on down and buy a car at Crazy Mike’s vibe that you can tap your foot to.
Next up is the Hank Cochran song “Can I sleep in your Arms?” Ignoring my instinct to say “May I”, we have arrived at the Netflix and Chill part of the album. Whaaa! He’s cold! Can he prudy pwease stay the night? Smooth moves, champ. The kicker is he’s promising to do her no harm and at no point does he say, “Oh, P.S., I killed the last lady that broke my heart so, harbinger and all that guff. I’m all alone, boohoo. Cold. Let’s Netflix and chill, Baby.” When Hank wrote this song, he had no idea it would come to life with a backstory that spins it a whole ‘nother direction.
She falls for it. Obviously. She has no reason not to, and if this whole town is about judging people by the look in their eye and not where they come from or where they’ve been, then let’s all operate on this ‘no questions asked, let’s get it on’ level. Got it.
“Remember Me” seems to be the ‘oh look how I’ve changed for the better’ song, but also the ‘never forget I love you’ but in a non-threatening way song. He’s softened a little here. This is a declaration of fidelity, I guess, and the recognition that she has completely turned his life around. But it’s with the next (second-to-last) song where it really wraps up the ol’ redemption arc.
When viewed in the context of the whole story, it’s a pretty genius move on Willie’s part to put Bill Callery’s “Hands on the Wheel” here. With the wisdom of age, the recognition that the world is full of assholes, and acceptance that he was completely out of control, he finds himself in the love of this woman. Puts his hands on the wheel of something that real. Beautiful. This song is the cement that sets the final punctuation of this album. A statement about the settling influence of true love on this cowboy. He has found his redemption. He has found himself in her love. All is good. He’s happy. A lot of folks are still dead, but let’s not dwell on that.
“Bandera,” an instrumental, is the credit roll. The Marvel Universe version of this movie shows an easter egg scene that comes after this, where the red-headed stranger is in his therapist’s office and it’s Samuel L. Jackson and nothing is really explained but at least he’s seeing a therapist now to sort out his poor impulse control issues, and we find out his first wife and her lover were mass murderers, and the yellow-haired lady was their protégé, so those killings were justified. Whew! Happy ending!
As concept albums go, I can’t think of any that take on a challenge like this. It works. I mean, it really works. I might get some of the interpretations wrong, but that’s the beauty of music—the response that’s triggered by it belongs entirely to the listener. (That’s you.) Do you remember the first time you heard this album? Is today the first time? What kind of “Music. Response.” did you get? Feel free to comment below. (Trolls will be deleted.)