Tuesday, November 09, 2004

red headed stranger - time of the preacher

Tim Dunlop over at Road to Surfdom quoted Willie Nelson from Time of the Preacher.

It was the time of the preacher in the year of 01.
Now the preachin' is over and the lesson's begun

I suspect most punters only came across this song as the theme to the TV series
Edge of Darkness. I was reminded that it was a while since I listened to The Redheaded Stranger all the way through. Because this is the kind of album that has to be listened to from start to finish.

Around 1973 Willie had had success writing songs that were recorded by others, notably “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and “Hello Walls” for Faron Young but he hadn’t had a great deal of success on his own. Prior to 1970 he was a pretty standard looking country singer, rhinestones suits, short hair, playing pretty much to the usual straight country music circuit fans. He did by then have his loping, behind the beat, (and in front of, and on and all around the beat) jazz singing style and plinked strangely tuned guitar (influenced by Joseph Spence to my ears) in the style which wasn’t all that well understood by the record company types.

Willie’s house burnt down around 1970 and he took sometime off to recoup and relax. He emerged with his now trademark longer hair and jeans style and a yearning to get back to a simpler way of presenting his music. A sort of a country punk idea. He played to fans at the famous
Armadillo Headquarters in Austin Texas an artistic, student, music town with a population of traditional country rednecks and hip students and people like Townes van Zandt and others.

He signed a contract for an album but didn't have more than a few songs to record. His wife suggested he do a theme album based around the Red Headed Stranger, a tale of a jilted preacher who goes on the lam after murdering his wife and her lover.

Nelson and the Family began recording Red Headed Stranger, and Nelson felt gratified by what he was hearing. "It was fun putting together what I had wanted it to be", he told Chet Flippo in 2000.
"I had wanted it to be real sparse. I had in mind, I remember, some of my favorite records: Eddy Arnold with just his guitar; Ernest Tubb with just his guitar; so I wanted to have that kind of feel with maybe just some help along the way to keep it from getting too, you know, obnoxious. Or monotonous".”

Red Headed Stranger
"It was the time of the preacher, when the story began," sings Nelson on the record's opening track, "Time of the Preacher". The theme, performed by Nelson and a lone acoustic guitar, returns twice during the record, acting as narrator and a sort of Greek chorus. Nelson's first pass at the song sets up the story, hinting at the infidelities that have happened, and the violence they will cause, when he sings:

It was the time of the preacher, in the year of '01
Now the preachin' is over, and the lesson's begun

The record continues in this vein with the second track, "I Couldn't Believe It Was True", a finger-picked ballad that details the preacher's discovery of his wife's dalliances. Although the track is an Eddy Arnold cover, Nelson is able to deftly slip it into the context of the tale he is telling. His quivering voice conveys the anguish and acceptance the preacher is feeling, giving new weight and poignancy to the lyrics:

The shock was so great I am quivering yet
I'll try to forgive her but I cannot forget
My heart breaking loss is another man's gain
Her happiness I hope will always remain

Following this song, Nelson drops back into the role of narrator, reviving the "Time of the Preacher Theme", to illustrate the course of action the protagonist is now forced to take, singing:

But he could not forgive her
Though he tried and tried and tried
And the halls of his memories, still echo her lies
It was the time of the preacher, in the year of '01
Now the lesson is over, and the killing's begun

The deed is committed, and recounted in the next track, "Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger". The song is haunting and visceral, with Nelson's vocal delivery serving to bring life to the story he is telling. Listening to this song, it is no wonder he opted to make a feature film version of Red Headed Stranger ten years later. Indeed, the scope and grandeur of "Blue Rock Montana/Red Headed Stranger" is very cinematic. The same holds true for the album's centerpiece, "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain". Another cover song, this one also brilliantly dovetails with the record's narrative. A touching, nakedly honest song about love and regret, the lyrics take on new meaning as a part of the Red Headed Stranger saga:

When we kissed goodbye and parted
I knew we'd never meet again
Love is like a dying ember
And only memories remain

The remainder of the record tracks the preacher as he tries to run from both the law and his past. Nelson weaves brilliant originals and covers into a dusty tapestry of the old West that is as resonant as it is unforgettable. Standouts include "Denver", one of the songs penned during that fateful ski trip in Colorado. The song eloquently captures the paranoia felt by the lonely traveler:

And it's nobody's business where you're going or where you come from
And you're judged by the look in your eye

Red Headed Stranger's final four songs blend originals and covers to bring the tale of the preacher to a quiet close. Nelson's cover of Hank Cochran's "Can I Sleep in Your Arms" shows the hero clinging to the thin hope of newfound love:

Don't know why but the one I love left me
Left me lonely and cold and so weak
And I need someone's arms to hold me
'Till I'm strong enough to get back on my feet

This thread carries on through the closing moments of the record, the cover of Bill Callery's "Hands on the Wheel" and the bittersweet instrumental coda, "Bandera". In "Hands on the Wheel", Nelson turns the song's reflective lyrics into a mantra of affirmation for the preacher:

At a time when the world seems to be spinnin' hopelessly out of control,
There's deceivers, believers, and all in-betweener's that seem to have no place to go.
I look to the stars, tried all of the bars, and I've nearly gone up in smoke.
And now my hand's on the wheel of something that's real, and I feel like I'm going home

It cost Willie only $20,000 to record, but it handed him the success he'd craved after years as a hit songwriter and modestly successful singer. By blending originals and vintage material, he created a timeless Western saga.

The remastered later released CD preserves the original sequence but also adds four bonus tracks. One, a brief snippet of Bach's "Minuet in G" from the 1986 Red Headed Stranger film, is inconsequential. Three more, from the 1975 sessions, are enjoyable covers of Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love with You," Bob Wills's "A Maiden's Prayer," and Pee Wee King's "Bonaparte's Retreat,". These are pleasant enough but don't really add anything to the original.

This is the record that those who sneer at country music will either not get at all, in which case you should immediately class them as cloth eared idiots and cast them from your BBQ list, or it will hit them as a Road to Damascus experience and they will become that worst of all fanatics The Convert. To those who think Willie can't do great pop jazz hit them with his "Stardust" album. Better still get Stardust for yourself and file it alongside Sinatra's best and enjoy it. Forever.

The sparse short original, around 33 minutes I think, is a country music opera, a very serious work of art, and one of those life changing records you must have. Along with Neil Young "Tonights The Night", Bob's "Blood on The Tracks", Sinatra's "Wee Small Hours" and Van Morrison's live two album set "Its Too Late to Stop Now"

NB: Not all my own work. If you recognise some of the above from elsewhere you are most likely correct.