Tuesday, October 9, 2007

No. 184: Red Headed Stranger

Band: Willie Nelson
Album: Red Headed Stranger
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: One of Nelson's breakthrough albums, "Red Headed Stranger" was also one of outlaw country's landmarks. A loose concept album -- man, there are a lot of concept albums on this list -- the record is sparse and inaccessible, yet was a definite hit.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: We're talking about a concept album about a murderous preacher who threatens his new wife's life (on side two). It's not exactly sunny.
Best song: "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" is hauntingly beautiful.
Worst song: Actually, there aren't any truly bad songs on this record. Each track puts the plot forward, is a great standalone song or both.
Is it awesome?: Absolutely.

The thing about a concept album like this one is how well put-together it is. Unlike a lot of looser concept albums, "Red Headed Stranger" has a very strong musical theme in "Time Of The Preacher Theme," a bit based on the opening track of the album. It's striking as you listen to it, as this theme comes up twice after the opening track. It's hard not to think "hey, haven't I heard this?"

Of course, the lyrics are different in each incarnation and the subsequent two versions of the theme are incredibly short (both under a minute). It's more like a Broadway show than a concept album and is really great, as far as plot progression is concerned.

And the plot... Oh, the plot. "Red Headed Stranger" is, like Johnny Cash's best work, a gangster rap record in a country shell. The plot of "Red Headed Stranger" is that a preacher (!) kills his wife and her new lover and is on the run. He holes up with another woman out West ("Denver") and waits out his fate.

It was a huge commercial success, which is incredibly odd, as the album is about as sparse as you can get. In lieu of the big guitar production, the outlaw country genre was partially based in the lack of big sound. Like a confessional, Nelson's voice is folky and sweet and accompanied by little other than a guitar and piano. It's pretty and I like it, but it's not exactly the type of thing you expect to sell.

It did. Nelson's biggest selling album, "Red Headed Stranger" has sold two million copies since its release in 1975. It's a great album, but I would like to point all the rap music haters in the direction of my Johnny Cash review. Long story short: There is reverence for the cowboy myth (and in music, the outlaw country myth), when all it really pushes is vigilante justice. The values are slightly different, but gangster rap is the exact same thing. Vigilante justice in the urban lonesome West. That there are totally different standards for each music type, to me, is racist.

It's not cool to kill, kids. Whether you're black and young or white and old. Whether you wear Kangol or Carhart. Whether you smoke weed or... Um...

Anyway, killing people is bad.

1 comment:

kellydwyer said...

Carla Bozulich covered this entire album a few years ago, and I'd be hard-pressed to pick which version of "Red-Headed Stranger" I like more. I SHOULD say Willie's, but it's a toughie. A damn toughie.