“We create our own unhappiness. The purpose of suffering is to help us understand we are the ones who cause it.” -Willie Nelson
“Three chords and the truth – that’s what a country song is.” -Willie Nelson
Sometime in the 60’s, an aspiring young singer/guitarist named Willie was down on his luck. He had talent, he was writing songs and he saw something in his writing that he really liked, but times were hard. He was fighting with his wife more frequently and he was drinking more; drinking himself into depression. Willie would later tell a story of walking out of the bar on a winter night in Nashville and lying down in the middle of the road, staring at the stars, letting snowflakes fall on his head, waiting for a car to run him over. He would reflect on the moment saying that he wasn’t necessarily trying to kill himself, but that the idea of dying right then and there didn’t sound too bad either. After about 10 minutes Willie got up and went home. Within a week, Willie had a job making $50 a week as a songwriter for a music publishing firm. He wasn’t exactly Rockefeller, but his luck had turned. The young man had gone from lying in the street awaiting death to professional musician in the blink of an eye. Life can be funny sometimes, huh?
This story, of course, is about Willie Nelson, the artist responsible for today’s entry in the Musical Training Plan: 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. The story has virtually nothing to do with the album other than the obvious connection of Willie himself. Somehow, though, knowing this story I can’t help but feel that a long past, or maybe deeply buried, piece of Willie shines through in this country music classic. Based around 1 song, “Red Headed Stranger” by Carl Stutz, Willie took a simple and brief tale and crafted a story around it. Brilliantly placing himself as the titular Red Headed Stranger, Nelson’s full album of the same name manages to feel deeply personal while also giving one the sense that these songs were written in saloons in the old west, spread by word of mouth by travelers, and etched into America’s history as deeply as any music. A timeless work, a brilliantly composed staple of country music, and a flat out delightful listen.
Red Headed Stranger‘s soundscape is sparse, reflective of the story’s setting. Painting the scene with only a couple guitars, a piano, a drum kit, the occasional harmonica, and Willie’s vocals, Nelson paints us the picture of a man who is, shall we say, down on his luck. Red Headed Stranger opens on a song called “The Time of the Preacher” which will be revisited twice more before the album comes to its conclusion. “The Time of the Preacher” and its subsequent renditions serve as wonderful interludes which tie the entire narrative together. The album follows an unnamed Preacher who finds his wife in bed with another man causing the Preacher to kill them both in cold blood. It isn’t an especially happy tale, but Willie solemnly puts himself in the shoes of the Preacher. Having been on both sides of infidelity in his life, Willie seems to capture the emotions and regrets of his character beautifully through song. Interestingly, there is never anger on this album. Willie only expresses sadness, regret, loneliness, and makes it clear that the people he meets in his aimless wanderings are afraid of him. In terms that my fellow movie nerds will understand, Red Headed Stranger feels like a Sergio Leone movie in all of the best ways.
Much like we all must, the Preacher has to face his decisions and accept himself, no matter how hard it is. He drifts from town to town, but by the end of the album the weight of his isolation grows too great and he finds himself asking a woman if he can sleep in her arms. He asks if anyone will remember him, but the listener gets the sense that there is nobody there to hear his questions, much less remember him. The album seems to cheer up musically as the Preacher comes to accept himself and the reality of his situation. It isn’t a message of why it’s okay to kill your wife, in fact, I’m not really sure what to take from it. All that I know is that I love to listen to it. The album’s final track is without words. “Bandera” plays the album out and seems to paint us a sunset over barren dusty terrain as the Preacher continues to live his life drifting, but feeling like he’s going home as he states in the prior track. It seems to be hopeful, redemptive, and leaves the listener wondering what will happen to the Preacher just as much as he himself wonders. Somehow though, those steps into the unknown feel like they are headed toward something better, in stark contrast to the beginning of the album.
It is a simple tale, and a sparse one, but I always find it beautiful.
There’s plenty that I could say about the actual music but let’s not kid ourselves. This is a very particular brand of country music which you will either love or hate. What is important is that we all appreciate how different, simple, and wonderful this work of art is. Perfectly illustrating this month’s theme next to yesterday’s album Kind of Blue, it isn’t hard to see how different Willie and Miles were, but the music might actually be more similar than you’d expect. Both men were at their most emotionally vulnerable when making music, both pushed the boundaries of their respective genre, and, believe it or not, both used a lot of Jazz compositional means in making the actual music of these albums. Willie was a Jazz guitarist, plain and simple. Willie was a special guy, plain and simple. Red Headed Stranger is a wonderful, wonderful album. Plain and simple.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger.
If Jazz and Country aren’t your thing, don’t worry. Big things are around the corner.