Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger (2000 Reissue)
A haunting and subtle song cycle that remains a touchstone to this day
Music critics are a notoriously lazy bunch. Take the critical shorthand that accompanies Willie Nelson’s stark and trailblazing Red Headed Stranger. Often referred to as both the first “Outlaw Country” album and the first conceptual country album, in reality, it’s neither. For the former claim, Willie’s riding partner Waylon Jennings beat him to the punch with 1973′s Honky Tonk Heroes. As for the latter, hell, it’s not even Willie’s first concept album (see the he said/she said of 1974′s Phases and Stages, 1971′s cosmic-tinged Yesterday’s Wine, or even the gimmicky country fair fare of 1968′s Texas in My Soul).
Even shorn of such hyperbole, Red Headed Stranger remains a classic, not just for country music but singer-songwriters the world over who always seek to strip things to essentials. His first album recorded for Columbia (after two classic and genre-expanding albums Shotgun Willie and Phases for Atlantic — not to mention an early career toiling in the country-politan salt mines of RCA and Liberty), Willie made a risky gambit right out of the gate. Rather than embellish his already polished songcraft or put down more of the fine soulful country songs he had steadily been releasing throughout the decade, Willie took his crack touring band (consisting of sister Bobbie Nelson, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, bassist Bee Spears and others) to an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas and stripped everything to the bone. Entwining a skeletal tale about a murderous preacher around a minor song from the Acuff-Rose songbook (“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”), Willie then juxtaposed it with gentle instrumental waltzes like “Bandera” and “Just As I Am” to make a haunting and subtle song cycle that remains a touchstone to this day.