The Red-Headed Stranger

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Willie Nelson is a country music legend.  Whether you love or hate his music, there is no denying his legendary status.  Willie celebrated his 85th birthday yesterday (4/29).  Willie is one of the most prolific songwriters and is responsible for many classic country hits.  He wrote many songs that became hits for other singers including, Funny How Time Slips Away (Billy Walker), Crazy (Patsy Cline), Pretty Paper (Roy Orbison), and Hello Walls (Faron Young).

In 1962, he recorded his first album, “… And Then I Wrote”.  The success of that album led to him signing with RCA Victor in 1964 and joining the Grand Ole Opry in 1965.  He had some minor hits in the 60’s and early 70’s, but because of his mediocre success, he retired and moved to Austin, Texas in 1972.  He didn’t stay retired long, as he signed a new deal with Atlantic Records in 1973 and began singing “outlaw country”.  in 1975, he signed with Columbia Records and released The Red Headed Stranger album.  Thanks to that album, his 1973 album Shotgun Willie, and the classic 1978 album Stardust, Willie became one of the most recognized names in country music.

Willie’s music has been a part of my life since I was little.  As I have said in previous writings, I can go to any Willie album and there is a song on it that will remind me of something I was dealing with or going through at that time.  I was 8 when Stardust came out.  We had it on Vinyl and on cassette.  I am sure we probably had it on 8 Track, too.

Stardust was Willie’s 22nd studio album.  For the album, he picked 10 classics from the Great American Songbook.  His neighbor at the time was Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MG’s fame).  He asked him to help arrange the song “Moonlight in Vermont” for the album.  Willie liked what he did with the song so much, that he asked him to produce the whole album.   The record company was not entirely on board with the idea for the album, after all, Willie was associated with the “outlaw” country and this was quite a big change.

The record company didn’t have to worry at all.  Stardust was a HUGE success. After its release in 1978, it reached number one on the Billboard Country Albums Chart,  it reached number 30 on the Billboard 200, Blue Skies and Georgia On My Mind were number one hits,  Willie won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for Georgia On My Mind, and the album remained on Billboard’s Country Albums Chart for 10 straight years (from 1978-1988).

For the remainder of this blog, I want to share some of my favorite Willie Nelson songs from albums over the years.

Stardust (1978)

This album was one that we were all too familiar with, and the one that introduced me to Willie.  My dad and grandpa had it on cassette and we listened to it up north all the time.

September Song – The opening piano on this is haunting.  This was my grandpa’s favorite song on the album. The arrangement is perfect.  Willie’s vocal is simple and convincing.  The subtle drum work in this is also perfect.  I always think of my grandpa when I hear this.

All of Me – This is a song that has been recorded by almost everybody.  Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the list goes on and on.  As someone who listened to a lot of big band and classic music, I was very familiar with the song.  I was also familiar with it because Redd Foxx and Scatman Crothers sang it together on Sanford and Son and Paul Williams sang it on the Muppet Show!  Willie’s version is fun and simple.  His stripped down instrumentation and voice just make this album so easy to enjoy.

On The Sunny Side of the Street – If I had to pick the best version of this song, it would be Willie’s version (with Keely Smith’s a close second).  The cold open of “Grab your coat and get your hat” is so effortless by Willie.  The rhythm beat under the vocal just gives you the feeling that you and Willie are strolling down the sidewalk.  LOVE this song.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (1981)

This is another album of classics for Willie.  While it is no Stardust, it does have some memorable songs, but the one that stands out the most to me is Mona Lisa.  Don’t get me wrong, Nat King Cole’s version remains the best, but Willie’s take on it is damn good.  While lacking the lush arrangement that Nat had, Willie is able to take this song and make it his own.  His vocal is powerful on this track.

Always on My Mind (1982)

Always on My Mind – The title track for this album was a big hit for Willie.  The song had been recorded by Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley as early as 1972.  While in the studio with Merle Haggard recording Pancho and Lefty, the producers asked them both to record it.  Merle had no interest in recording it, but Willie did.  In his autobiography, he says, “We’ll never know what would have happened if Merle had really heard the song right.  ‘Always on My Mind’ bowled me over the first time I heard it, which is one way I pick songs to record.”

I can recall the first time we heard it on the radio. We were driving in the car, the entire family, and it played. My mom started crying immediately. “Maybe I didn’t love you quite as often as I could have. Maybe I didn’t treat you quite as good as I should have. But you were always on my mind.” I remember mom saying that it was like grandpa sending a little message to us. I’ll always remember that.

The Party’s Over – For those who remember when songs were released on 45, this was the B-side of Always on My Mind.  This is a song that was re-recorded by Willie for this album.  He wrote it in the late 1950’s and used to sing it at live performances to close the show.  He recorded it first back in 1966 and re-recorded it for this album. It was a top 30 hit.

City of New Orleans (1984)

City of New Orleans – This is a Willie song that I think outdoes the original.  The feel of the song is not so “folksy’ as the original.  The instrumentation is just right and there is just enough reverb on Willie’s voice that make it a wonderful listen.  It’s the longest song on the album (almost 5 minutes), but I am always left wanting more.

Why Are You Pickin’ On Me – Here’s a guy who has a gal hounding him.  He wants nothing to do with her basically.  The guy knows all about who the gal is and wants no part of her game. It’s just a fun and peppy song, that blows off this gal.  Always liked it.

Cry – This song is another one that has been done by many artists.  The biggest hit versions of the song were done by Johnnie Ray in 1951, Lynn Anderson (top 5 in 1972) and Crystal Gayle in 1986, which when to number 1. Willie’s version is smooth.  Again, his vocal and the light piano lick mixed in with the rest of the instrumentation is simply amazing.

What a Wonderful World (1988)

What a Wonderful World – The Louis Armstrong version of this song was being reintroduced to audiences thanks to the movie Good Morning, Vietnam.  Willie’s version is simple and nothing spectacular, but using the song for the title track and cashing in on the success and familiarity of the song because of the movie makes sense.

Spanish Eyes – This song has always been one of my favorite songs.  The Al Martino version of this song still packs the floor at weddings.  Willie and Julio Iglesias had already had duet success with their 1984 hit “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”, and once again they get together for this one.  Julio singing in Spanish makes this extra special.

A Horse Called Music (1989)

If I had to pick my favorite Willie album that wasn’t Stardust, it would be either this one or Born For Trouble.  There really is not a bad song on this album.

I Never Cared For You – this song is one that Willie has recorded a few times.  When he was on Monument records, they released it as a single and it was his only hit while he was there.  I think of all the recordings of this song, this is his strongest version.  “The sun is filled with ice and gives no warmth at all.  The sky was never blue.  The stars are raindrops searching for a place to fall.  And I never cared for you”.  Great songwriting here!

Nothing I Can Do About It Now – I was at a point in my life where I was looking back at mistakes I had made.  I had many regrets for the way I handled things.  This song reminded me that what is past, is past.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  “I could cry for the time I’ve wasted.  But that’s a waste of time and tears. And I know just what I’d change if I went back in time somehow, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.”

There You Are – First time I heard this one I was speechless.  I had broke up with a gal I had been dating for some time.  I found that she often crossed my mind at times when I least expected it.  This song really hit home during that time. Anyone who has ever thought of a lost love can relate to this song.

Is The Better Part Over – Everyone has been in a relationship that starts off like a raging river, but as time goes on turns into a calm stream.  You reach a point in the relationship where you say, “Are the good times done?  Is the better part over?”  Again, a song that is lyrically amazing and heartfelt.

If My World Didn’t Have You – There are heartache songs on this album, and then there is this masterpiece.  If you are in love or in a relationship with your soul mate, listen to this song.  It is about as true a love song as I have every heard.  Instrumentation is beautiful on this song and his vocal is convincing.  I absolutely love it and feel its true right now.

Born For Trouble (1990)

Ain’t Necessarily So – This uptempo song has a deep message.  Willie is a thinker.  This shows in a lot of his lyrics.  In his autobiography, he often talks about his gut feelings.  You can see where some of his thinking comes across in the lyrics of this song:

“Every time I follow what I’m feeling, I end up in the same place my heart would have me go.  If there’s one rule of life I trust, it’s everything outside your gut, ain’t necessarily so”.

You Decide – This is a powerful song.  “You decide what you need and I’ll be waiting here”.  Ever been in a relationship where the other person just isn’t sure they want to be with you? In this song, the singer steps back and basically says, “Look, think it over.  Decide what you want.  I’ll be here, just let me know what you decide.”  Not an easy thing to do.  I think this is one of Willie’s most convincing vocals.  You can hear the hurt in his voice as he sings.

This is How Without You Goes – Another tremendous heartache song.  The singer all of a sudden has time to notice all the little things that he missed while with his gal.  What makes it so powerful is that he says he’s often wondered how he would take it if she went away.  Again, some great songwriting and a great vocal.

Moonlight Becomes You (1994)

While this album has many standards like the title track, Sentimental Journey, You’ll Never Know, and I’ll Keep On Loving You, It’s the two Willie compositions that really stand out for me.

In Gods Eyes – “Never think evil thoughts of anyone” and “Lend a hand if you can to a stranger” are two suggestions from the lyrics of this one.  Words to live by and a great song.

Afraid – I think everyone in some way, shape or form is afraid of rejection.  The singer is afraid to tell someone how much he cares for them.  He’s afraid that if he says something, it may lead to a relationship, but may lead to that relationship not lasting.  Melodically, this is a very pretty and simple song.  Lyrically, we can all relate.

Just One Love (1995)

Again, there are many songs worth the price of admission on this album.  Smoke!  Smoke!  Smoke! (That Cigarette), Four Walls, It’s a Sin, and Cold, Cold Heart are all very well done.  I enjoyed two other cuts from the album.

Just One Love – We all want the ONE LOVE.  “Just one love that shines for me, shines a light that I can see.  Just one love shines for me tonight”.  When you find it – it shines!  Love this one.

Each Night At Nine – Long distance love can be hard.  This song is sung by a soldier who is away from home.  The premise of this song is that the two lovers – no matter where they are – will think of each other every night at nine.    While sad, it is also very heart warming. “I hold your picture close to my heart.  It takes your place dear, while we’re apart.  Helps remind me, that you’re still mine, to feel your nearness each night at nine”. Wow.

God’s Problem Child (2017)

I realize there is a big gap between the last album I mentioned and this one and 22 years and 22 albums in between them.  Milkcow Blues, Rainbow Connection, American Classic, Heroes, To All The Girls…, and For The Good Times all are albums worth buying and listening to, but I wanted to hit his latest two before I wrapped this up.

Still Not Dead – No one can say that Willie doesn’t have a sense of humor.  Over the years, there have been many times that it has been falsely reported that Willie had died.  After yet another false claim of his death, Willie wrote this song (with very catchy lyrics), and even made a funny music video to go along with it.  “I woke up still not dead today.  The news said I was gone to my dismay.  Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play, and I woke up still not dead again today”.  Brilliant writing from Willie and Buddy Cannon, who also produced this album.

Last Man Standing (2018)

This is Willie’s latest album.  You can get it in stores today, and listen to most of it on the internet.  Think about the outlaws and the people that Willie used to play with – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Ray Price, and Merle Haggard.  They’ve all passed away and it seems that Willie is the last man standing.  His humor is still evident in his writing – the first line of the title track says “I don’t want to be the last man standing, but wait a minute, maybe I do”.

Some stand outs on the album are the title track, I Ain’t Got Nothin’, and She Mad My Day (But it Ruined My Life).  But the best song on the album in my opinion is Something You Get Through.  In my opinion, this is one of the best songs I have heard in regards to dealing with the death of someone.

Something You Get Through – When I was in college I took a class on the psychology of death and dying.  In the class one thing stuck with me.  There was a quote in the book that said we never really get over the death of someone.  We still have to live our lives, but we do it without them.  We adjust to their not being her.  We get through it.  I’ve tried to convey that thought to people when I speak with them after losing someone close to them.

How did this song come about?  Buddy Cannon, the co-writer of the song, saw Willie consoling someone who had just lost someone special.  She told Willie, “I don’t think I’ll ever get over this”, and Willie looked at her and said, “It’s not something you’ll get over, but it’s something you’ll get through”.  It stuck with Cannon for almost three years.  He knew there had to be a song in there somewhere.  He called Willie and together they wrote the song, and it is a good one.

In Closing

In this blog, I focused primarily on Willie’s songwriting and singing.  Let’s not forget that he is also quite a good actor.  He’s appeared in almost 60 movies and television shows:  The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarosa, Stagecoach, The Red Headed Stranger, The Dukes of Hazzard, Beer For My Horses, Zoolander 2, and the Muppets (just to name a few….)!

He continues to write songs, tour the country playing sold out shows, advocate for animal rights, works to help farmers (as he has done since instituting Farm Aid in 1985), and is happy to keep being busy.

Happy Birthday, Willie!  Thanks for the decades of music!

 

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