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Red Headed Stranger is a 1975 album by American outlaw country singer Willie Nelson. After the wide success of his recordings with Atlantic Records, coupled with the negotiating skills of his manager, Neil Reshen, Nelson signed a contract with Columbia Records, a label that gave him total creative control over his works. The concept for the album was inspired by the "Tale of the Red Headed Stranger", a song that Nelson used to play as a disk jockey on his program in Fort Worth, Texas. After signing with Columbia he decided to record the song, and arranged the details during his return to Austin, Texas, from a trip to Colorado. It was recorded at low cost at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas. The songs featured sparse arrangements, largely limited to Nelson's guitar, piano and drums. Nelson presented the finished material to Columbia executives, who were dubious about releasing an album that they at first thought was a demo. However, Nelson had creative control, so no further production was added.

concept albumRed Headed Stranger is about a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. The content consists of songs with brief poetic lyrics and arrangements of older material such as Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", Wolfe Gilbert's "Down Yonder" and Juventino Rosas' "O'er the Waves". Despite Columbia's doubts and the limited instrumentation, Red Headed Stranger was a blockbuster among country music and mainstream audiences. It was certified multi-platinum, and made Nelson one of the most recognized artists in country music. The cover of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", released as a single previous to the album full release became Nelson's first number one hit. The title of the album would become a lasting nickname for Nelson. It was ranked #183 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[1] and number one on CMT's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In 2010 it was inducted to the National Recording Registry.

In 1986 Nelson starred as the Red Headed Stranger in a movie of the same name, based on the story of the album. The album has had a strong cultural impact; the song "Time of the Preacher" has been used often in the series Edge of Darkness, and its lyrics were used as well in the first issue of the comicPreacher.


 [hide*1 Background and recording

Background and recording[edit]Edit

In 1973 Nelson signed a contract for US$25,000 per year with Atlantic Records, the first country artist signed by the label.[2] His first album with Atlantic was the critically acclaimed Shotgun Willie,[3] which was followed by one of the first concept albums in country music, Phases and Stages.[4] Due to the success of these recordings, Nelson signed with Columbia Records, and was given complete creative control.[5]

During his return to Austin after a ski trip in Colorado, Nelson was inspired by his then-wife, Connie Koepke, to write a western concept album. Koepke suggested the inclusion of Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's "Tale of the Red Headed Stranger",[6] which Nelson sang during his radio shows on KCNC in Fort Worth and previously, to his children at bedtime.[7] Nelson decided to write a complete story that included details of events prior to the ones described in the song.[8][9] As he spontaneously composed the songs, Koepke wrote down the lyrics.[10] With his original writings, Nelson included on the story,Fred Rose's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", Wolfe Gilbert's "Down Yonder", Juventino Rosas' "O'er the Waves", Hank Cochran's "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?", Eddy Arnold's "I Couldn't Believe it Was True", and Billy Callery's "Hands on the Wheel".[7] When he arrived in Austin, Nelson recorded a demo of the songs on a tape recorder accompanied with his guitar at his ranch in Fitzhugh Road.[6]

Nelson started to look for a studio in Texas to record his new material, to avoid the modifications that they did to his recordings in his previous sessions. Engineer Phil York, who was hired free-lance by the recently-opened Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas, heard about his need. York, an acquaintance of Nelson's harmonicist Mickey Raphael, offered Nelson a day of free recording to boost the popularity of the studio. Nelson and his band went to the trial session during January, and recorded five songs. Later, Rapahel called back York, announcing that Nelson would record the entire album there.[7] After hearing the tapes by Nelson, the band started to improvise to the song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain". Disliking the result, Nelson decided to strip down the instrumentation.[11] Nelson also instructed York to undo the equalization he performed on the tracks, remarking that it was the method his producers used in Nashville.[12] The recording took five days, with an additional day for the mixing, that summed up to US$4,000 in studio costs.[11]The addtitional costs took the total to US$20,000.[13]

Nelson featured arrangements of acoustic guitar, accompanied by piano, played by his sister, Bobbie,[14] as well complementary arrangements of drums, harmonica and mandolin.[15] The sparsely instrumented acoustic arrangements caused Columbia directors to doubt the wisdom of releasing the album as presented, feeling it was under-produced and no more than a demo.[16] However, Nelson had complete creative control, and it was released without any further modifications.[13]


"Time of the Preacher"MENU   0:00 This song introduces the story, and is interwoven through the storyline as it develops.----

"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" MENU   0:00 A 1947 standard by Fred Rose; in the context of the story, it is used to depict the man's grief over the death of his wife. The single was a hit for Nelson, and was one of the reasons for the album's success.---- "Red Headed Stranger" MENU   0:00 The album's title song marks the start of the journey of the fugitive husband, and his second murder.----

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The story begins with "Time of the Preacher", where the character evokes his love for his wife, whom he suspects is unfaithful. In the following song, "I Couldn't Believe It Was True", the infidelity is revealed. This leads to a short version of "Time of the Preacher," wherein the singer ends with the line "Now the lesson is over, and the killing's begun". The reaction of the husband is depicted by Nelson in a medley of "Blue Rock, Montana" and "Red Headed Stranger". The first song describes the double murder of the unfaithful woman and her lover by the Stranger, who states "And they died with a smile on their faces." This leads to the second song of the medley, which describes the grief of the Stranger.[17] This section is followed by Nelson's cover of the 1947 Fred Rose, song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", where the fugitive laments the loss of his wife. In "Red Headed Stranger," the protagonist commits a subsequent murder—he kills a woman he believes is stealing his horse. The horse, to which he undoubtedly holds a sentimental attachment, had belonged to the Stranger's wife.[18]

The story continues with the Stranger traveling south. In the song "Denver," the character falls in love with a woman he meets in a bar in town. One of the lines from "Blue Rock Montana" is repeated, with a variation: "And they danced with a smile on their faces". The following song, "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?", shows the desire of the Stranger for redemption and love. Next is "Remember Me", where he announces that his vows to his deceased wife are broken and he is free to love. The story ends with "Hands on the Wheel", which depicts the Stranger as an old man who is accompanied by a child, presumably his grandson, and his new love. The song marks the end of the sorrow of the Stranger, and his redemption years later. The album ends with the instrumental song "Bandera".[17]


Chart performance and critical reception[edit]Edit

Red Headed Stranger reached number one on the Billboard chart for Top Country Albums,[19] and number 28 during a 43-week stay in the Top LPs & Tapes chart.[20] On March 11, 1976, it was certified goldby the Recording Industry Association of America, and on November 21, 1986, it was certified double-platinum.[21]

Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
Rolling Stone [22]
Texas Monthly Favorable[23]
Robert Christgau B−[24]
Mother Jones Favorable[25]
Allmusic [26]
Zagat Survey [27]
CMJ New Music Monthly Favorable[28]
Sputnikmusic [29]

Rolling Stone writer Paul Nelson wrote: "Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled.... Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to create a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental. That he did not write much of the material makes his accomplishment no less singular."[22] Meanwhile, critic Robert Christgau wrote, "Some of the individual pieces are quite nice, but the gestalt is the concept album at its most counterproductive—the lyrics render the nostalgic instrumental parts unnecessarily ironic and lose additional charm in narrative context."[24]

Music critic Chet Flippo wrote in a Texas Monthly article entitled "Mathew, Mark, Luke and Willie: Willie Nelson's latest album is more than a good country music; it's almost Gospel": "The difference between Nelson's Red Headed Stranger and any current C&W album, and especially what passes for a soundtrack for Nashville, is astounding. What Nelson has done is simply unclassifiable; it is the only record I have heard that strikes me as otherworldly. Red Headed Stranger conjures up such strange emotions and works on so many levels that listening to it becomes totally obsessing".[23]

Billboard described the album as "lots of instrumental work, with particularly fine piano by Bobbie Nelson, and the usual highly stylized Willie Nelson vocals".[30]Mother Jones wrote: "Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist".[25]

In 1996 CMJ New Music Monthly wrote: "His Red Headed Stranger was the Sgt. Pepper's of country music, the first record to follow a coherent theme instead of merely compiling radio singles".[28] Allmusicdescribed Red Headed Stranger as "really elusive, as the themes get a little muddled and the tunes themselves are a bit bare. It's undoubtedly distinctive – and it sounds more distinctive with each passing year – but it's strictly an intellectual triumph and, after a pair of albums that were musically and intellectually sound, it's a bit of a letdown, no matter how successful it was".[26] In 2003 it was included among the top 1,000 albums of Zagat Survey magazine, and was rated five stars out of five. The magazine wrote, "Supporters (of the album) spread the gospel that it's just a quintessential outlaw recording, but perhaps the greatest country album ever with a spare style that changed the way C&W was played".[27]

Sputnikmusic wrote: "The Red Headed Stranger is simple and bare. Following the story of a preacher man that kills his cheating wife and her lover, ol' Willie spins the tale with a laid back nonchalance that just seems to ooze out of him, his aching chords and somber melodies encapsulating the futility and pain of his character's situation [...] The Red Headed Stranger is timeless. Willie Nelson's captivating story telling, and the minimalist majesty of his music fills a well worn grove in the hearts of those that enjoy the folk roots of the United States."[29]

Red Headed Stranger's critical success cemented Nelson's outlaw image,[31] and made him one of the most recognized artists in country music. The title of the album became a long lasting nickname for him.[32] The cover of Fred Rose's 1945 song "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain", that had been released as a single previous to the album, became his first number one hit as a singer.[33] In 2004 the album was ranked at number 184 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,[10] and number one in CMT's 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music in 2006.[19] In 2009 it was adopted into the National Recording Registry because Red Headed Stranger is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or informs or reflects life in the United States."[34]


Main article: Red Headed Stranger (film)

At an appearance at the Armadillo World Headquarters, a music venue in Austin, Texas, Nelson met publisher and screenwriter William D. Wittliff. Because of the success of the album, Wittliff decided to write a script for Nelson based on the story of the Red Headed Stranger. In 1979 Wittliff finished a draft of the project, which was turned over to Universal Studios. The studio budgeted the film at $14 million and sent the script to Robert Redford, who turned it down. The movie project was tabled, and Wittliff and Nelson had to buy the script back from Universal. The script then went to HBO, who assigned the project a budget of $5 million, but this project was not completed either. Finally, Nelson and Wittliff decided to finance the film themselves. Nelson portrayed the role of the stranger, and the movie was released in 1986.[35]

In popular culture[edit]Edit

The first track, "Time of the Preacher", was used in episodes of the 1985 television drama Edge of Darkness.[36] The lyrics to "Time of the Preacher" were used in the opening pages of the first issue of theVertigo comic book Preacher.[37]

The complete album was performed and recorded by Carla Bozulich in 2003. The Red Headed Stranger included a guest appearance by Nelson.[38] A first season episode of the dramedy series Monk is entitled "Mr. Monk and the Red-Headed Stranger," and guest-stars Willie Nelson.[39]

Track listing[edit]Edit

Original release (1975)[edit]Edit

Side one
Track Song title Writer(s) Time
1. Time of the Preacher Willie Nelson 2:26
2. I Couldn't Believe It Was True Eddy ArnoldWally Fowler 1:32
3. Time of the Preacher Theme Willie Nelson 1:13
4. Medley: Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger Nelson, Carl Stutz, Edith Lindeman 1:36
5. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain Fred Rose 2:21
6. Red Headed Stranger Carl Stutz, Edith Lindeman 4:00
7. Time of the Preacher Theme Willie Nelson 0:25
8. Just As I Am Charlotte ElliottWilliam B. Bradbury 1:45
Side two
Track Song title Writer(s) Time
1. Denver Willie Nelson 0:53
2. O'er the Waves Juventino Rosas, arranged by Willie Nelson 0:47
3. Down Yonder L. Wolfe Gilbert 1:56
4. Can I Sleep in Your Arms Hank Cochran 5:24
5. Remember Me Melba Mable Bourgeois 2:52
6. Hands on the Wheel Bill Callery 4:22
7. Bandera Willie Nelson 2:19

Reissue (2000)[edit]Edit

The album was reissued by Columbia/Legacy in 2000. The new issue features remastered sound, as well as the inclusion of previously unreleased songs.[40]




  • Chet Flippo – Liner notes
  • Howard Fritzson – Art direction
  • Monica White – Art work
  • Joseph M. Palmaccio – Mastering
  • Don Hunstein, David Gahr – Photography
  • Phil York, Eric Paul – Engineers
  • John Jackson – Product manager

Chart positions[edit]Edit


Chart (1975) Peak



Top Country Albums


Top LPs & Tapes



Year Song Chart Peak position[42]
1975 "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" Billboard

Hot Country Singles

Billboard Hot 100 21
1976 "Remember Me" Billboard Hot Country Singles 2
Billboard Hot 100 67

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