Sunday, April 27, 2014

LP of the Week - "Red Headed Stranger," Willie Nelson (1975)

Listening to this record feels like falling into a time warp.  To call it spare in its sound hardly does it justice; it's practically primitive.  On some songs all you hear is Willie singing, accompanied by his guitar.  On others, there is Bobbie Nelson's piano, and every now and then you get a snippet of bass and drums.  For all intents and purposes, it's an old field recording.  It's the kind of record that sounds good with a few snaps and pops every now and then.

It's hard to imagine today, but there was a time when Willie Nelson was one of the great unsung musical heroes of our time.  He'd penned some famous songs ("Crazy" by Patsy Cline, for example), but for the most part, no one had ever heard of the guy.  That was certainly true when this record came out in 1975, and it's probably no coincidence that within three years, Nelson was a bonafide superstar.

It's a short album, and the bulk of the songs are covers - "I Couldn't Believe It Was True" by Eddy Arnold, "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" by Fred Rose, "Can I Sleep In Your Arms" by Hank Cochran among them - but the concept is all Nelson's.  The late, great critic Paul Nelson called it "a phonographic western" evoking the works of John Ford and "Shane," and described the narrative as follows:
The album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable synthesis of all he has missed.
Not exactly cheerful stuff, and even in its music, the album is mournful for most of its running length.  But it's brilliant throughout - quite likely the greatest work that Nelson has produced.

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