Red Headed Stranger


Red Headed Stranger
“Red Headed Stranger” (Willie Nelson)

I am quite happy to live in the digital age, at least now that the transition is over. There is such a wealth of quality music, found in the vaults of every obscure record label (residing in the vaults of the few music consortiums who bought the obscure labels, but that's a discussion for another time), all of which would have been more obscure and difficult to hear in the old vinyl record years. I confess to the crime of being a full-time musical historian- less concerned with what's hot at the moment, and more interested in rounding out my collection of every good or great album from every decade since electricity became commercially available (including the current decade, btw - Patti Smith's new album is in my playlist, as well as Tin Hat, Modest Mouse, Of Montreal, Yo La Tengo, et al). My mind is actually boggled by how many albums there are, in print, that I've heard about, but never heard.

This evening I cracked the seal on a Willie Nelson album, bought on a whim, and more than half the songs are great at first listen. I was familiar with only one of the included songs: Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, one of those evocative songs that always catches my emotional attention. Something about the poignancy of the vocal.

Love is like a dying ember /

And only memories remain /

And through the ages i'll remember /

Blue eyes crying in the rain.

and cribbing from Allmusic because I'm a lazy reviewer oftentimes:

A surprise hit in 1975 on both the country and pop charts (hitting number one on the former and almost reaching the Top 20 on the latter), Willie Nelson's smash version of the 1945 Fred Rose composition “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” sent shock waves through the Nashville establishment, as did the massive success of its accompanying album, The Red Headed Stranger. At a time when pop-oriented countrypolitan records with lush, heavy arrangements were the norm, the spare, stark instrumentation of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was startlingly effective in its hushed, restrained intimacy.

Even when the arrangement is embellished with accordion, electric bass, and harmony vocals, the song still feels like it's just Nelson and a battered acoustic guitar, singing purely and nakedly from the heart. Nelson's performance uncovers the song's depth through his subtlety, his refusal to overplay its mournful melancholy. Matched with the lyrics, his understated vocal conveys a sense of inevitability about the fleeting nature of love and life, as well as highlighting Rose's simple, evocative imagery.

While the song's last verse holds out hope for a lovers' reunion in the afterlife, it's clear from the quiet acceptance permeating the rest of the song that the memories of love are what truly resonate with Nelson -- even the painful ones. Which means that it's ultimately irrelevant whether the lovers in the song ever do meet again, since the singer already has what he truly wants: an intensely personal memory of an intensely personal experience, one of the very few things he can take with him even to the grave. It's a thoroughly convincing illustration of the old cliché about having loved and lost and being better for it. On the purely musical side, Nelson's fluid guitar solo matches his vocals in his willingness to play around with the locked-in beat;

I moved to Austin just as the Armadillo World Headquarters was destroyed, and converted into a bank building high-rise (not sure what's there now), but I've talked to old timers who spoke of its magic, including many performances by Mr. Nelson. One of the photos on the cover of The Clash's London Calling was snapped there, if memory serves me with honor.

Rolling Stone : 184) Red Headed Stranger
Newly signed to Columbia, Nelson was feeling ambitious. “It was the first time I had 'artistic control,' ” he recalled. “So I thought I would just start writing.” Nelson had penned the song “Red Headed Stranger” years before; on a drive back to Austin after a Colorado ski trip, he fleshed out the yarn -- his wife, Connie, writing down the lyrics as they came out of his mouth. He kept the arrangements extremely spare, in sharp contrast to the gussied-up music coming out of Nashville at the time. The songs locked together to tell a tale of murder and infidelity, and the concept album became one of Nelson's biggest hits.

Mostly simple songs, minimal flash or slickness. Plus a piano number lifted from Deadwood (errr, well, in spirit anyway). Willie Nelson is a geezer with whom I would blow gage, if the opportunity arose.

If my stamina matches my ambition, there are a plethora of other classic albums from previous eras which are new to me, and might be obscure to you as well. I hope to revisit this fertile ground, or I might not. I did just discover Sly and The Family Stone, and they could get you up out of your seat if you've never danced to the music of introverted funk....

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I went through a Willie phase about six years ago--Red-Headed Stranger is really great, and I'll have to add it to the rotation again now.

So what else can you recommend? I don't have any other Willie albums, except for his recently released album of reggae covers.

I'm by no means an expert in his vast catalog, but after exploration here are my recs:

You've already got his best LP--but I also enjoyed the Stardust album of American standards countrified. Many friends abhor it. If you enjoyed his take on "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" it might be up your alley however. I think my absolute favorite is Wanted! by The Outlaws, which is of course Waylon & Willie & friends.

The VH1 Storytellers Cash/Wilson is also very good, and Willie Nelson's Greatist Hits (And Some that Will Be) is perhaps all you'd really need. Though Crazy: The Demo Sessions is worth hearing (but perhaps not worth buying).

[removed for future border crossings]

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on May 12, 2007 7:50 PM.

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