Red Headed Stranger is extraordinarily ambitious, cool, tightly controlled. A phonographic Western movie which brilliantly evokes the mythopoetic imagery of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Shane and the works of John Ford, the album traces the life of a Montana cowboy who finds his true love with another man, kills both of them and later another woman, then drifts through Denver dance halls into old age, forever unable to cut his early loss but managing in the final years of his life a moving, believable and not unwarranted synthesis of all he has missed. The narrative may not sound especially promising or unusual—like most fables, it is, after all, the same old story. That is its point—but in Nelson's hands, its hard-won simplicity calls forth the same complex and profound metaphysical responses as those brought about by the matter-of-fact awesomeness of the Rocky Mountains. Hemingway, who perfected an art of sharp outlines and clipped phrases, used to say that the full power of his composition was accessible only between the lines; and Nelson, on this LP, ties precise, evocative lyrics to not quite remembered, never really forgotten folk melodies to create a similar effect, haunting yet utterly unsentimental. That he did not write much of the material makes his accomplishment no less singular.
Red Headed Stranger, not unlike Dylan's much underrated Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack, is concerned with great universals: its heroic songs … seem both vulnerable and inevitable, strapped to the lifeline, equally suitable for weddings or funerals. "It was a time of the Preacher," Stranger begins, and with this life-and-death invocation, the once Edenic West becomes a land populated by fallen innocents … who deal out Biblical revenge … less in anger than in a state of agonized confusion…. When the killing comes, it is quick, hypnotic and terrible in its finality …, the belligerent bullets almost an afterthought, transient, symptomatic explosions in a field of loneliness ("He bought her a drink and gave her some money / He just didn't seem to care / … He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her"). The stranger has reached the penultimate point in his journey, but with omniscient irony the century rolls on:
It was the time of the Preacher
In the year of '01
And just when you think it's all over
It's only begun.
On side two, cyclic catharsis begins, its inception again ironic: The wanderer enters a tavern, is drawn to a woman, but this time the lovers dance "with their smiles on their faces." "Can I sleep in your arms tonight, lady?" the cowboy asks, adding "I assure you I'll do you no harm." Life's verities seem ambiguous … as the hero ages. Stranger ends with an image reminiscent of the final tableau of Bergman's Wild Strawberries: Time, memory and expectations have magically fused, transitory people have somehow become luminous legends, happiness has been found.
And in the shade of an oak down by the river
Sat an old man and a boy
Settin' sails, spinnin' tales and fishin' for whales
With a lady they both enjoy.
(pp. 68, 70)
Paul Nelson, "Willie Nelson's Phonographic Western," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 194, August 28, 1975, pp. 68, 70.