Black Music Matters Festival

Willie Nelson

Red Headed Stranger – 2000 (Columbia/Legacy)

Reviewed by Dan Williams

"Stranger" may be Willie Nelson's masterpiece; a milestone of progressive country that stands as tall today as it did upon its 1975 release. It was the success of this album and of those like "The Outlaws" compilation that paved the way for personal, idiosyncratic country records, but it's doubtful that a major label would touch it today. It's too spare and soulful; too gloriously and unrepentantly alive.

This was Nelson's first record for Columbia and the first in his career in which he enjoyed complete creative control. It's a concept album - a loosely-connected cycle of songs that follow an itinerant preacher who commits a murder, falls from grace and searches for salvation. Awash in imagery of sin and redemption, memory and loss, it's easily as steeped in the Old Testament as any Johnny Cash album. And it coheres beautifully; the repeated "Time Of The Preacher" refrain linking such mournful laments as "I Couldn't Believe It Was True" and the title track. Industry suits deemed this record dead on arrival; it must have been a major awakening when the sublime "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" became his first number one single.

"Stranger" still sounds like a revelation 25 years and 3 million copies since its release baffled Nashville. Existential Texas country blues don't come any better than this.