Sharps & Flats

Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger" made him -- and Austin, Texas -- a star. Twenty-five years later, you can still hear why.

Topics: Country Music, Music,

By the early 1970s, Willie Nelson was already a country success. His songs had been recorded by Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), Faron Young (“Hello Walls”) and Billy Walker (“Funny How Time Slips Away”). But Nelson, with his marijuana and his shaggy red hair, had had a harder time making it on his own in Nashville. And so when his house there burned down in 1970, Nelson moved away from the country music capital to his home state, settling down in Austin, Texas. His luck didn’t seem much better there: He signed to Atlantic Records’ Nashville division and released two albums before the whole division went under.

In the early 1970s, Austin wasn’t known for much besides the University of Texas and the state’s capitol building. Janis Joplin had hung around before moving to San Francisco, and there was a small music scene for country balladeers like Townes Van Zandt and the singer-songwriters of the Flatlanders, but the scene wasn’t recognized as much by outsiders. The airport wasn’t, as it is now, festooned with posters proclaiming it “The Live Music Capital of the World.” Movie stars didn’t live there, and neither did high-tech moguls. There were no hip rock ‘n’ roll festivals every spring.

The arc of Nelson’s career, and, one could argue, the legacy of Austin, changed 25 years ago. In 1975, after signing to Columbia, Nelson assembled a seven-piece band — two drummers, a pianist, a harmonica player, a pair of guitarists and a bass player — and set out to record an epic tale of a wandering preacher: The Red Headed Stranger from Blue Rock, Montana. Compared to the overblown orchestral country records that were popular at the time, it was an odd little album, just over 34 minutes long, full of two-minute instrumental rags (“Down Yonder”) and minute-long interludes. The songs were here and there: “Red Headed Stranger” is an old Edith Lindeman-Carl Stutz number that Nelson used to sing to his children to woo them to sleep, and Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was previously recorded by both Elvis Presley and Gene Autry.

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When Columbia chief Bruce Lundvall got the album, he figured, as he says in this reissue’s liner notes, “It may not be an important commercial record by Willie, but it’ll be a valuable catalog album. And everyone thought it was nice.” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” ended up making a dent on the pop charts, and the record sold 2 million copies within a couple of years of being released; today, that number is over 3 million.

Willie Nelson was finally a star. And in the past 25 years, Austin has become somewhat of a star as well. For bucking against the biggies, and making a spare, personal album in a time of slick excess, Nelson is now a wizened uncle of Austin outlaws and musicians spurned by Nashville — musicians like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. And Austin claims it is home to as many aspiring bands per capita as any city in the country. It remains one of the few American cities where locals pride themselves on the music scene, where the newspapers cover music like other papers cover sports and where dinner and a live band is a perfectly normal Saturday night date for adults.

“Red Headed Stranger” begins with six cascading chords, played on bass, acoustic guitar and piano. Then the musicians cut out for Nelson’s first line: “It was the time of the preacher/When the story began.” The entire album works like this. Songs seem to have no beginnings or ends — they just waft out of the air. Later, as Nelson is singing “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” all the instruments cut out except a barely perceptible piano. As Nelson begins singing again he’s joined by a single picked note on guitar, then a pair of notes, then a bass line, then the whole band. It’s as if more than one instrument would clog the majesty of the moment.

Roughly, the album tells the story of an itinerant preacher whose lady left him; the album follows him as he wanders across the Old West and finally finds redemption in a new love. Billy Callery’s “Hands on the Wheel” marks the exact moment: “And with no place to hide/I look in your eyes/And I found myself in you/And I feel like I’m going home.”

This Columbia reissue, part of the second batch of Columbia/Legacy’s “American Milestones” series (other new titles include albums by Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, George Jones and Johnny Horton) includes four bonus tracks, if you count a 35-second riff on Bach’s “Minuet in G” as one. Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You)” is slightly jauntier than most of the album, and it’s nice to hear. But it’s the quick shuffle of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” with its refrain — “So I held her in my arms/And told her of her many charms” — that is the best addition. With Mickey Raphael’s otherworldly harmonica moaning like the wind blowing through a screen door and Bobbie Nelson’s brisk piano, “Bonaparte’s Retreat” is an example of how Nelson can take a song and really own it — a skill he would ride to the top of the country charts with “Stardust” later in the decade.

In the last 10 years, Nelson has returned to the flowing beauty of “Red Headed Stranger” with near-perfect albums like 1998′s “Teatro.” Now 67, Nelson still lives in Austin, and still throws an annual Fourth of July barbecue, a fitting fete to celebrate a small musical revolution that ended up creating a little colony down South.

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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