Welcome to World Information. As a reminder from our introduction to this collection, we’re going to check out 50 nation albums throughout a number of completely different many years. A few of them are revered as classics, a few of them are essential, and a few are simply iconic. The distinction between these meanings is topic to interpretation. Anyway, these is not going to be deep-dives into what make these albums iconic – although that is part of the dialogue –  nor will I search to canonize them. As an alternative, these will probably be private critiques to dig into the albums themselves and see what made them particular then, and whether or not or not they maintain up properly at present … no less than, for me. Nation has by no means been a historically album-oriented style. Really, it’s nearly essentially the most single-driven format in historical past. However, on condition that we’re beginning with the ‘70s for this function, I feel it’s becoming to check out an album that I imagine kickstarts nation music’s better dedication to the album artwork kind. Let’s dive headfirst, lets?

Crimson Headed Stranger will not be the primary nation music idea album. It’s not the primary Willie Nelson idea album. It’s not the primary nation album to attract from western inspiration, neither is it the primary to function a provocative setup like revenge homicide; there’s a surprisingly deep historical past to that, truly.

If something, nevertheless, that’s a part of the purpose on this album’s creation. The groundwork had already been established for an formidable storytelling narrative file reminiscent of this. With the essential and industrial success of Marty Robbins’ 1959 Gunfighter Ballads and Path Songs, as an illustration, an artist had proved that typically – or actually, usually – labels ought to relent to let artists file their private ardour tasks. And thru Porter Wagoner’s Skid Row Joe character – who performed a recurring function on a number of idea albums of his – one other artist proved that the idea for a good suggestion may begin with a broader imaginative and prescient, slightly than only a three-minute radio single.


There are different examples, in fact, but when something, it goes extra to indicate the irony behind Crimson Headed Stranger’s significance to nation music. In spite of everything, it was firstly essential to the Willie Nelson story than the operating nation music one of many time. He could have made a reputation for himself as a Nashville trade songwriter whose compositions earned the respect of artists like Patsy Cline and Ray Value within the Nineteen Sixties, however by December 1970, following a home fireplace and a divorce, Nelson settled in Austin. And it seems he belonged there, in a position to join simply as a lot with the native cowboys by his music as he was the long-haired and the younger – an open-minded perspective and a various viewers that Nashville music executives weren’t aiming for on the time.

After all, he’d inadvertently conquer Nashville in time, simply on his personal phrases. Via Atlantic Information he’d file way more sprawling and impressive tasks than his earlier choices, but it surely wasn’t till he signed to Columbia and recorded his label debut for them {that a} legend would really be born, and all for simply $4,000 at a studio in Garland, Texas.

It’s humorous. I’ve listened to the holy trifecta of Nelson’s early ‘70s tasks numerous occasions over time (Shotgun Willie and Phases and Phases being the opposite two, in fact) and may recall just about any tune from both of his first two from reminiscence, even regardless of being utterly completely different works. Positive, the previous work is much extra accessible – as funky, groove-driven, and downright catchy as Nelson’s music has ever been – however the latter challenge, regardless of being the headier pay attention, is so even-keeled and masterly crafted, that I all the time find yourself blown away with each revisit.

With Crimson Headed Stranger, regardless of what number of occasions I am going again by, it all the time seems like the primary time listening once more. A part of it’s pure design – which we’ll little question get to – however regardless of being the extra quaint and fewer speedy idea album for me, even in comparison with later works as properly, due to each the size and the stark presentation, it’s oddly simple to return to … even regardless of being an album saddled by grief, anger, and revenge. And but, wanting exterior of my very own perspective for a second, given how a lot this album went in opposition to the grain when it comes to its recording course of, idea, and desired objective on the whole, it’s onerous to disclaim the outcomes – a deserved and long-awaited breakthrough not only for Nelson in Nashville, however approach past it and past nation music. And since it’s the album that granted him inventive management to file no matter else he wished – in flip inspiring different artist and even labels to take possibilities they wouldn’t have earlier than – I can’t assist however respect the groundwork this specific album set, particularly for the albums we’ll be discussing forward.

However in going again to the precise album … it’s odd. It’s undoubtedly the idea album that’s impressed and been mined most for concepts in comparable western-inspired tasks of this vein, however to be honest, this in and of itself is pulling from a reasonably broad focus with its personal custom, not simply in the way in which it successfully provides new context and which means to the covers used to additional the narrative, but additionally within the base idea itself. In spite of everything, by observe 4, the primary deed is finished – a scorned husband kills the spouse he suspected of being untrue all alongside in addition to her lover in chilly blood, with the remainder of the album aimed on the hypnotic nature of all of it – the gambit of feelings plus the fallout and attainable redemption.

We’ll circle again to that, but it surely’s all the time been telling to me of the function Nelson performs right here.

He’s not the central character on this story, extra simply an observer from afar – the one one conscious of a person’s darkest secrets and techniques and crimes, which, within the time of western justice within the early twentieth century, aren’t essentially crimes he’d need to publicly reply for, even when he was caught. However they’ll eat at one’s psyche, all the identical, which is the place I can respect the restrained method general to this album’s manufacturing, even when I are likely to choose my western-concept albums to have extra of a direct sonic edge or chunk to them. In spite of everything, exterior of some very refined prospers right here and there – the thumping gallop employed in “I Couldn’t Imagine It Was True” to speed up the stress of the revelatory dishonest being my favourite – that is an album primarily pushed by these signature Spanish acoustics, comfortable keys, and harmonica, as empty, dusty, and huge open because the panorama itself, and a sonic basis that’s come to outline Nelson’s work on the whole.

However the framing nonetheless issues. Inside, the primary character is operating by phases of loneliness, betrayal, grief, anger, disappointment, and extra, unexpectedly. However from Nelson’s – and by extension, our – perspective, there’s little greater than only a hole vacancy there, mirrored within the ghost of what as soon as was a person who has to dwell with what he’s accomplished. Nevertheless it’s additionally that huge openness that serves to spotlight the surprisingly mild and memorable melodies, most of that are pulled from elsewhere however solely serve to immortalize the legend, like outdated people tales handed down. And it’s additionally what highlights Nelson himself, by no means as soon as generally known as a fantastic singer on a technical degree and all the time well-known for his quirkier movement and supply habits, however nonetheless a improbable emotive interpreter whose unassumingly craggy fashion someway instructions the room.

Sure, even regardless of this being a dialogue on the album itself, the enduring “Blue Eyes Crying within the Rain” continues to be the centerpiece for me, a tune initially written by Fred Rose and recorded by Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. By itself, it’s a tune a few hopeful reunion between two wayward lovers, and whether or not the separation is from a breakup or dying itself, one can’t say for certain. However even when the context is extra direct right here, there’s nonetheless that added complexity of it now not being a tune about that reunion – simply potential remorse over what’s been accomplished and what may have been. It’s not the kind of album that deserves to mine sympathy for its character, however the way in which Nelson nails the damaged desperation right here for one thing extra is all the time nothing in need of breathtaking.

Now, regardless of the story’s place to begin feeling a bit primitive at present in its broader framing, there’s an echoed affect right here I don’t simply respect, however outright love in sketching out that accomplished story from starting to finish, even whether it is by each well-known and lesser-known songs of the time (and considerably earlier than it). It’s cohesive, it really works, and it serves to spotlight how easy songs can tackle completely new contexts and far more advanced meanings than earlier than. And it does so by being purposefully easy in idea and sound. However in comparison with what got here earlier than and after – each within the context of Nelson’s discography and in what drew from the concepts right here and expanded upon them – it does really feel extra just like the formidable place to begin at present, slightly than the ultimate crowning achievement. And that’s talking extra when it comes to subjective high quality slightly than its significance – I did say that’s what this function can be all about – as a result of it’s very telling that the title observe this album initially drew inspiration from within the first place is much extra detailed as a complete, in a position to sketch a fuller character portrait of a person who has no qualms killing a possible horse thief. It’s one other second the place context issues, as a result of by itself, it’s your tried-and-true outlaw story that’s been (actually) handed down by the ages. However right here, it’s one other second of added depth, the place the grueling cruelty is simply an ironic facade for a personality who’s overcome any feelings to grow to be a nihilistic shell of who he as soon as was.

If something, although, it’s additionally why I’ve all the time wished for better buildup to the primary character himself, and extra moments of vulnerability that might have pushed him other than his spouse – possibly even a observe advised from her perspective within the vein of Phases and Phases. Between the a number of covers and instrumentals, it’s efficient in splicing collectively a narrative, however I all the time find yourself wishing for one or two extra originals to tie all of it collectively a bit higher. And to be sincere, I’ve all the time felt that the redemptive arc that arguably begins with “Denver” and concludes the rest of the album isn’t as robust as what comes earlier than it. The pacing is way slower, the instrumentation feels a bit extra languid in tone general – significantly the keys – and it’s additionally the place that added complexity begins to fade away, as a substitute choosing extra easy forgiveness for a personality who most likely doesn’t deserve it anyway, no less than not so simply. It’s additionally barely inconsistent for me. “Denver,” a Nelson authentic the place our lead character finds a brand new place to settle and a brand new love to carry, feels oddly abortive, however then the opposite debatable centerpiece, the duvet of Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms,” simply tends to tug with out a lot in the way in which of precise justification. I can’t argue that’s it not efficient in what it’s all going for, however no less than for me, it’s not as sharp because the entrance half.

However you already know, I all the time wind up circling again round to the little subtleties I can admire about this album. Its weathered tones and cracks are lovely even when its story is superbly unhappy, and it is likely to be simply my favourite album to highlight Nelson’s underrated energy as an emotive presence, even when I would lean extra towards the various weirdness of different tasks extra usually and extra fondly. However as a result of it’s so purposefully easy, it’s nonetheless a story I by no means tire of listening to. I suppose I actually must name and thank Nelson, not just for rediscovering Crimson Headed Stranger, however for proving the profound affect that imbuing a accomplished album with coronary heart and soul can have on a whole style of music.

Be a part of me subsequent time, the place we’ll talk about Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.

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