‘Red Headed Stranger’ remains memorable after 48 years


Eli Tecktiel

A brown and yellow vinyl cover of Willie Nelson’s album “Red Headed Stranger” lays on a wooden table. In honor of Nelson turning 90, check out the album and his new single “Summertime.” (Eli Tecktiel | Northern Star)

By Eli Tecktiel, Lifestyle Writer

About once in a generation, an artist comes along and completely turns a genre upside down. In the case of country music, that artist is Willie Nelson, who turned 90 years old on April 29.

Though Nelson’s seminal LP, “Red Headed Stranger,” was released in 1975, no one could have predicted the impact and legacy it would have on the future of country.

One of the first true concept albums in the genre, the album tells the story of a man who kills his wife and her lover before going on the run. The songs benefit from the simplicity of the plot; the story is always clear, succinct and easy to follow.

Despite it being a concept album, only six of the album’s 15 tracks are original Nelson compositions. The cover songs, though spanning the wide range of country history, are masterfully recontextualized by Nelson’s stripped-down interpretation, seamlessly weaving them into the album’s story.

The album’s opening track, “Time of the Preacher,” one of the songs written by Nelson, sets the scene, describing a man’s painful heartbreak after being abandoned by his wife. The song is laid back and the instrumentation is loose, sounding closer to the Grateful Dead than Patsy Cline.

“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” originally written by Fred Rose in 1946, quickly became one of Nelson’s signature songs in his live performances following its release. The poetic lyrics describe longing for the distant memories of a lost love, something that ties in perfectly to the album’s overarching story, despite having been written nearly 30 years prior.

Sometimes an instrumental can say more than words, and that is proved on the album’s closing track, “Bandera,” composed by Nelson. Wrapping up the album, it sounds like a song we might hear during the end credits if this had been a film. Featuring a minimalistic combination of classical guitar, bass, piano and harmonica, the song provides a succinct but fitting ending to a memorable album.

The true power of “Red Headed Stranger” lies in Nelson’s sparse, simplistic arrangements with his infamously well-worn nylon string classical guitar nicknamed Trigger at the forefront. The nostalgic sound of the classical guitar gives the music an old western feeling which suits the album’s story perfectly. 

When considering just how many tracks on this concept album are covers, I’m instantly reminded of Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours,” which is widely considered to be among the first concept albums. Sinatra didn’t write a single song on the record, but through his heartbreaking vocal performances, he creates his own immersive story.

Nelson’s use of cover songs functions similarly on “Red Headed Stranger.” He combines a variety of covers with his own original compositions to put together an engaging story like pieces of a puzzle. 

While you can appreciate any song from the album on its own, “Red Headed Stranger” works best when you can set aside 33 minutes to just let the songs and the stories wash over you, just as you would with a film or a book.

Nelson’s new single, “Summertime,” featuring Amanda Shires and Bobbie Nelson, was released April 26 and can be listened to on any music streaming platform.