During the golden age of album-oriented rock, when a Led Zeppelin double album could sell a million copies before its ship date, country music was for rednecks who wore manure-crusted boots to bed — or at least, that’s what the recording industry believed. But in 1975, Willie Nelson released an album that helped make country — and outlaw country at that — a national phenomenon. His masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger, tells a striking story of loss, sorrow, and redemption that resonated with the record-buying public. Not only is the music memorable, but the album cover art told a visual story long before anyone had ever heard of visual storytelling — which is why I have featured Red Headed Stranger in my series of posts on memorable album covers.
After years of making other singers famous with his songwriting skills, Willie Nelson was starting to enjoy success as a solo artist when he recorded Red Headed Stranger. Based on the 1953 song “Red Headed Stranger” (written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz), the album tells the story of a preacher on the run after he kills his unfaithful wife and her lover. The songs, a combination of covers and originals, are violent, beautiful, reflective, and romantic, as they relate different episodes in the preacher’s life as an outlaw. The album applied to country all the devices of album-oriented rock, which was at its apex: a cohesive theme, songs arranged in a thoughtful manner, and album art that complemented the music inside.
Photo credit: Philip Gould
Designed by Monica White (with art direction by Howard Fritzson), the album cover art not only molded Nelson in the image of an outlaw but also contributed to the rise of the entire country outlaw movement, which catapulted the careers of Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. For starters, there is the front cover, which consists of a drawn portrait of Nelson. With his piercing eyes, pitiless gaze, long hair, grizzled beard, and cowboy hat, he looks like a Wild West gunfighter who knows how to deal out rough justice. His name and the album title are rendered in an old-time script over a thick red border, as if branded on a fence post.
On the back cover, pencil drawings guide the reader through the album’s songs, akin to a graphic novel. The outlaw’s life is laid bare. One panel depicts a scene from the song “Red Headed Stranger,” in which the preacher shoots his wife and her lover in a bar. The drawing captures the moment when the lover tastes one of the preacher’s bullets. His head jerks back, his hat goes flying, and his hand remains closed on a glass of whiskey even as the drink spills. The preacher’s wife is slumped on the table, her head down. (Apparently, she was the first to go.)
In another panel drawing, the preacher accosts a would-be horse thief: he leans back and casually plants a bullet in the chest of the thief, a woman with blonde locks and a pink dress. But the back cover also contains a larger story arc, depicting the preacher dancing with a newfound love in one scene and relaxing at a riverbank in another. The episodes on the back of the album also contain song lyrics that go along with each scene — a clever approach that tells a story and advertises the songs.
The front and back cover made a statement: Red Headed Stranger was not a typical contemporary country album but rather a journey to another time and place. And the album itself fulfilled the promise. Featuring little more than Nelson’s plaintive voice, a guitar, a mandolin, drums, and a harmonica, the music was a radical departure from the lush arrangements that typified country. The songs themselves consisted of a collection of originals and covers, such as “Red Headed Stranger,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Hands on a Wheel,” which spanned a gamut of themes such as loss, remorse, and redemption — everything the album cover advertised, and more. Once you heard those songs in one sitting, you understood the symbolism of Willie Nelson’s face on that album cover: Nelson wasn’t just channeling the Wild West; he had become the red headed stranger of his own songs, a moniker and mythology he would own for the rest of his career.
The album reached Number One on the Billboard country charts, and eventually achieved multiplatinum sales. Nelson’s cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” became Nelson’s first Number One hit. The album also earned critical praise. According to Mother Jones, “Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist.”
And therein lies the appeal of Red Headed Stranger: the songs sounded country enough to please traditional country fans, but Nelson’s singing style and the themes he chose to dwell upon hit a universal chord. The album also made the record industry realize that yes, country artists could unleash massively popular best sellers just as rock stars could. Country enjoyed a commercial breakthrough, with albums such as Wanted! The Outlaws and Waylon & Willie enjoying massive success. For the rest of the 1970s, Nelson would ride a wave of popularity as the de facto leader of country’s outlaw movement until he became a more mainstream pop singer (albeit with country roots). Meanwhile, Red Headed Stranger would go on to be positioned among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone (the album was ranked 184) and Number One in Country Music Television’s 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In the August 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone, Associate Editor Patrick Doyle, profiling Nelson, would note that the Red Headed Stranger album cover, combined with the music, made it feel like “Nelson was stepping into the boots of a John Ford character.”
Today visual storytelling is so important to image building that entire books are written on the topic. (The Power of Visual Storytelling, by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio, is the visual storytelling Bible for brands.) Nearly 40 years ago, Red Headed Stranger set a high standard for visual storytelling — and changed an industry.
Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:
Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Al Green: Greatest Hits
Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy
Led Zeppelin: Untitled
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run
From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories
Can Wu-Tang Clan Save the Record Album with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”?