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On May 1, 1975, Willie Nelson released “Red Headed Stranger”, a concept album which would become the first successful hit of the country music maverick.
Born and raised in Texas, Nelson made his way to Mecca in the land of Nashville, Tennessee in 1960. He quickly gained a reputation by writing songs for other artists – including “Crazy,” which became a huge success for Patsy Cline in 1961 – and went on to record more than a dozen albums of her own.
In the early 1970s, frustrated with the soft, heavily orchestrated sound of Nashville, Nelson moved to Austin, Texas. In the midst of the city’s growing hippie music scene, Nelson felt free to be his quirky self and dressed in a bandana. He released “Shotgun Willie”, considered one of his best albums, in 1973, followed by “Phases and Stages”.
But like his previous albums, none of them sold as well, and when his record company, Atlantic, closed its country branch, Nelson was left without a label. Fortunately, his agent managed to negotiate a contract with Columbia which gave Nelson full artistic control (something rare in the music world).
In January 1975, on his way home from a ski trip to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Nelson’s wife Connie reminded him of “Red Headed Stranger”, a 50s ballad written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz about a cowboy suffering from grief. that Nelson had played on the radio during his years working as a DJ. By the time they returned to Texas, he had turned the history of the song into a concept for his next album.
Combining Nelson’s songs with the work of other songwriters, “Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of the stranger, a man with long red hair and blue eyes (like Nelson himself). After catching his wife cheating on him with another man, he kills them both, then goes on the run.
Nelson recorded the album in a small studio in Garland, Texas, with a group of trusted musicians, including his sister and longtime collaborator, Bobbie. It took about a week and cost only $ 4,000 in the studio. The sound was so free – mostly piano, guitar, and drums – that CBS Records (Columbia’s parent company) executives didn’t want to release the album, saying it sounded like a rough demo and that people wouldn’t buy it.
In fact, “Red Headed Stranger” reached number 1 on the national charts, and eventually became multi-platinum. The first single, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (written by Fred Rose) gave Nelson his first number 1 country hit, and his first Grammy Award, for best country vocal performance. In 2003, Rolling stone put “Red Headed Stranger” at number 183 on its list of 500 best albums, while Country Music Television (CMT) went even further, calling it the best country album of all time.
Discover “Red Headed Stranger” from our sponsor, Legacy Recordings.