Willie Nelson and 'Red Headed Stranger'

Country singer Willie Nelson turned seventy years old this year. He lives in Texas and keeps busy. He performs in cities around the world -- when not playing golf, that is. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA, from VOA Special English. This week, we bring you one of the albums that helped make Willie Nelson famous.

The album is called "Red Headed Stranger." It came out in nineteen-seventy-five. It sold over two million copies in its first release. Its re-release on compact disc has sold many more.

Willie Nelson’s "Red Headed Stranger" is known as a concept album. It tells one story through many songs. The story is set in nineteen-oh-one, in the last days of the American Old West. It is about a good man gone bad. A clergyman, a preacher, shoots his wife and her lover.

The first song describes the moment when he discovers his wife’s betrayal. The song is called “Time of the Preacher."

We never learn the preacher's name. As the story continues, he travels the Old West. He lives the life of an outlaw, a criminal. Finally he falls in love again. By the end of the album, the "red headed stranger" has settled into a quiet new life with the woman and their child.

The story of love and disloyalty has been told for thousands of years. But the story of the red headed stranger seemed to capture something current in American society at that time. There had been large student protests against the Vietnam War since the nineteen-sixties. Many of those who opposed the war might have seen themselves as outlaws.

Nineteen-seventy-five was also the year the war ended. South Vietnam fell to the Communist North. The last American troops came home. Many people continued to argue about why the war had ever been fought.

At the very least, the story of the red headed stranger was a lot simpler to talk about. Music critics have suggested that people found it easy to understand what the preacher did. They felt sorry for him.

In the title song, we learn about another violent act by the preacher.

Another reason for the success of the album was the popularity of westerns in the years up to then. Programs like "Gunsmoke" acted out stories of lawlessness in the Old West. Some television shows about cowboys and Indians were for children. But movies offered more realistic stories, and more violent. Willie Nelson's album seemed to say in music what these westerns played out on film.

Here, he sings a short song that bridges two longer pieces on "Red Headed Stranger." It tells the story of when the preacher kills his wife and her lover.

Willie Nelson did not write many of the songs on “Red Headed Stranger.” The title song was written many years earlier by a songwriter named Arthur "Guitar Ruby" Smith.

Willie Nelson used to perform this song on a radio show for children. Then Columbia Records offered him a record deal. Willie Nelson decided to base an album on the song. The other songs would describe events that led up to, and followed, what happened in "Red Haired Stranger."

The first big hit from the album was a song written by Fred Rose in nineteen-forty-five: “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”

By the early nineteen-seventies, Willie Nelson moved to Austin, Texas. He had lived for some time in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is known as the capital of country music. But Willie Nelson and some other musicians were unhappy with country music at that time.

They said the country music recording industry only wanted the songs that could earn the most money. So these musicians began a movement more closely tied to earlier country and blues. This was music made by and for common people.

The other musicians included Waylon Jennings and George Jones. Together with Willie Nelson, the music they made came to called "outlaw" country music.

The name made sense. These were outlaws from the recording industry. They lived hard lives. And the music they made dealt with subjects like a red-haired preacher who kills his wife and her lover.

When “Red-Headed Stranger” came out in nineteen-seventy-five, many different kinds of people liked the album. Its old-time roots appealed to lovers of traditional country music. And young fans enjoyed the connection to modern folk and rock.

It helped that Willie Nelson himself had red hair. He also presented himself as someone who might easily step into one of his own songs.

Willie Nelson had been working in the music industry for twenty years before the album came out. But this one turned him into a star. And today Willie Nelson is still proving he is no stranger in the world of country music.

Our program was written and produced by Robert Brumfield. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. You can learn more about Willie Nelson at his own Web site, willienelson-dot-com. Join us again next week for more about life in the United States, on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.