In 1975 Willie Nelson had definitively ‘found
himself’. This is because the key elements that led to the discovery of the Nelson
that we all know today were: firstly, in 1969, when he took control of Trigger,
a classic Martin N-20 with nylon strings (on which he added the pickup from his
old Baldwin to amplify its sound). When he received it, he was delighted with
its sound, as it reminded him of that of his six-string hero, Django Reinhardt, and he decided to call it Trigger,
after the horse of his childhood idol, Roy Rogers. Next came his move to Austin
in 1972, a place that became a kind of musical Mecca, but one that was much
freer and less controlled than Nashville, with people like Doug Sahm, Townes Van Zandt or Jerry Jeff Walker. There Nelson swapped his rigid Nashville image
of a suit and tie, for that of a rock outlaw: letting his hair and beard grow,
wearing jeans and shirts and, of course, the mythical bandana. With his signing
for Atlantic came his first masterpieces Shotgun
Willie in 1973, and the conceptual Phases
and Stages the following year.
But after Atlantic closed its country label, Nelson found himself negotiating a new contract with Columbia. Beyond the finance Nelson was interested in getting something quite unusual, and that was complete artistic control. Getting that was the key for his new album to see the light. Nelson had in mind a new concept album structured around the story of an old song, Tale of the Red Headed Stranger, composed by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz in 1953. It was a song that he used to play when he worked as a DJ on a radio station. He liked it so much that he used to sing it to his children before they fell asleep. So his third wife convinced him to build on it a kind of 'western' novel.
It was not the only cover that appeared on the album. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Red Headed Stranger is that it is an album in which the original songs do not predominate but rather the covers, like the famous Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. And that means something when we're talking about one of the best composers in country history, someone who had become famous in Nashville composing great songs for others like Crazy, Hello Walls or Funny How Time Slips Away. So if this album shows something it is Nelson’s intelligence and skill as an arranger and, above all, as a performer. It is an album in which the voice of Nelson and Trigger are the main focus. His music had been stripped of all other layers to leave its purest essence: Willie and Trigger, the cowboy and his horse. Nelson is left with the main role, the preacher, a totally 'Fordian' character, a cowboy who lives tormented by jealousy and who, when these are confirmed, ends up killing his wife and his lover so fast, they still die with a smile on their faces.
It is a journey of redemption, full of violence and poetry, in which Nelson uses the minimum possible elements. Here there are no sugary strings of Nashville, it is an austere and courageous album, in which the Spartan arrangements echo the loneliness of its protagonist, someone who goes from town to town on his horse, taking with him the pony that his wife used to ride. Among the songs that stand out is the immortal Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain and his own cover of Red Headed Stranger, but it is an original song, Time Of The Preacher, which serves to cohere this first side, appearing up to three times. On the second side Nelson seeks ‘to forge a new destiny’ by riding west and finding something like solace: "Now my hand is on the wheel / I've something that's real / And I feel like I'm going home". The end comes with a beautiful instrumental called Bandera in which, like in the Ford movies, one imagines his protagonist riding towards the horizon.
But when Nelson delivered the result to his new record company, several executives put their hands to their heads thinking that he was giving them badly recorded demos. Nobody thought that country could be recorded in such a stark way and, much less, that it could be successful. A senior manager from the company said: "Has he recorded it in the living room of his house? It sounds as if it were only him and his guitar". They could not understand that this was a fundamental part of the charm. In addition, despite being partly right, the truth is that almost all members of his band have moments to show off, from his sister Bobbie on piano, the great Mickey Raphael on the harmonica, to Jody Payne's mandolin; but the feeling of the album is that you are listening only to the voice of Nelson, accompanied by his inseparable Trigger. The recordings do not have a single 'overdub', as they were recorded live, with the musicians in a circle. It was even said that Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain was recorded in one take. No wonder the record has an intimate and ‘up-close’ feeling to it.
But after imposing his artistic control, the company released the album as it had been delivered by Nelson. It was a total success, both in the country and general charts. Willie Nelson had ‘gone his own way’ and had delivered one of the best records in the history of the genre. An album that I always recommend; even to people who tell me they do not like country. And what this album did was not only to make Nelson a legend of the genre, but to make him a legend of music, beyond labels or genres.