Friday, April 30, 2010

April 30: Willie Nelson, "Red Headed Stranger"

Artist: Willie Nelson
Song: "Red Headed Stranger"
Album: Red Headed Stranger
Year: 1975

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Within the world of music, there is a massive group of artists without whom music today would no exist, and yet their names remain virtually unknown.  As the architects for nearly every form of music, this group rarely receive as much credit as they deserve, as one simply does not have progress in music without writers.  If one looks back into each era of every genre, there are countless individuals who are responsible for massive hit songs, yet they themselves never took the stage.  Though they may have had musical talent, for one reason or another, it was their writing that reigned supreme, and it is truly tragic that a majority of these names never received their due.  Yet in each generation, one or two of these writers does manage to break through into the performance side of music, and there is one man who perfectly embodies this struggle in every aspect: Willie Nelson.  Having made his name writing hit songs throughout the 1960's (like Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Billy Walker's "Funny How Time Slips Away"), Nelson struggled to gain individual success as a performer, but found himself on failing record labels, and even with a handful of moderate-charting singles, he was simply unable to break into the mainstream.  So, in 1972, Willie Nelson "retired" from music, but after seeing the crossover potential between country and rock music, he returned to recording, and after a few albums, he unleashed his classic concept record, 1975's Red Headed Stranger.  Unquestionably one of the strangest themes every explored in depth, the album perfectly encapsulates everything that makes Willie Nelson such an amazing musician, and there is perhaps no song that defines him better than the albums' title track.

In reality, while Willie Nelson was trying to find the space between country and rock music, "Red Headed Stranger" is about as "classic country" as one will find anywhere.  Containing little more than an acoustic guitar, bass, and drums, the song is a slow, eerie story that one can easily picture being sung around a campfire.  Yet this seemed to matter very little, as the song played a vital role in the albums' success, and it remains one of Nelson's "signature" songs to this day.  The stripped down, simple instrumentation is, in fact, one of the most endearing aspects of the song, as bassist Bee Spears finds a way to make this basic arrangement avoid anything resembling "boring."  Similarly, the minimalist, waltz-style drumming of Paul English proves to be nothing short of perfect.  With Nelson rounding out the sound with his guitar strumming, the fact that this song was able to find success as overly-artificial and disco music were on the rise is almost inexplicable.  Yet it is this uncomplicated style that gives "Red Headed Stranger" its uncanny sense of intimacy, and the ability to create this sort of mood is one of the aspects that defined every turn fo Willie Nelson's career, as he was able to inject it into his early writing for others as easily as he did on his own recordings.  It is also perhaps this straightforward musical approach that makes the song so timeless, as the music never sounds "dated," and in many ways, the song would sound almost identical if it was recorded today.

Yet even with as distinctive as the sound of Willie Nelson's songs is, there is simply nothing that can compare to his voice, and it is without question one of the most uniquely recognizable voices in the entire history of music.  Constantly falling somewhere between singing and speaking, Willie Nelson possesses one of the most outright natural and honest voices ever, and the almost peculiar way in which he spaces his words further separates him from every other vocalist.  On "Red Headed Stranger," his voice is truly perfect, and it completes the feeling of sitting around a campfire, listening to the story being told.  Comforting, yet somewhat disturbing at the same time, Nelson is able to deliver the odd lyrics with a style in which most people completely miss the fact that these are some of the most haunting and questionable words ever recorded.  The overall theme of the song "Red Headed Stranger" makes the case that if a prostitute steals your dead wife's horse, it is alright to kill her for this crime.  Keeping the story completely ambiguous, the characters are only referred to as "red headed stranger" and "yellow haired lady," and this allows for interpretation across all boundaries.  Yet when the song is over, it leaves a rather large moral question in the air, defined when Nelson sings, "...the yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset, the stranger went free, of course. For you can't hang a man for killin' a woman, who's tryin' to steal your horse..."

Filled with amazing juxtapositions from every angle, Willie Nelson crafted a subtle musical masterpiece with his often misunderstood 1975 song, "Red Headed Stranger."  From the clash between the seedy, creepy lyrics and the cheery, yet simple music to the unwavering way in which Nelson sings these morally questionable words, the song is anything but the simple way in which it is largely perceived.  Though the stripped down instrumentation sticks firmly in the country style, one can make the case that there are only a few occasions previous where such a sound has been so perfectly set against such a disturbing tale.  Yet somehow, Willie Nelson is able to "get away" with this, and most listeners completely miss the underlying theme which is in no way buried within the song.  Perhaps lost on most due to the calm, yet distinctive nature of Nelson's voice, "Red Headed Stranger" is a true work of genius and firmly cemented Nelson's name as an individual who was as talented a performer as he had already proven to be a writer.  Though a majority of his songs were far more "traditional" in nature, it is within the "oddities" of the Willie Nelson catalog that one finds his finest work, as he is clearly one of the most uniquely talented performers in music history.  A true music icon to this day, the name "Willie Nelson" alone demands the utmost respect, and one would be hard pressed to find a better example of everything that makes him such a legend as one will find in his classic 1975 song, "Red Headed Stranger."

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