#183: Willie Nelson, "Red Headed Stranger" (1975)

183 Red Headed Stranger.jpg

While in India a few years back, I traveled with a friend to the Taj Mahal on a day thick with fog. Down the road along the River Yamuna, past the camel carts and kids selling Taj snow globes, we could barely see ten feet in front of us. Our rickshaw driver was concerned we might not be able to see the mausoleum through the haze at all.

Inside the grounds, the pools designed to reflect the Taj reflected nothing, but we kept walking until the pure white marble of the Taj appeared a little at a time, like a ghost rising from the mist.

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In Red Headed Stranger, we meet a man who has been betrayed by his lover. He seeks revenge by murdering her and her new lover, and then he finds new love and his pain is vindicated.

The story is simple, in a 1901 Wild West kind of way. The music is simple (Nelson used his own band to back him and many of the songs were recorded in a single take, relying on the three-chord structure of old country-western music and Nelson’s raw vocals). But the emotions are complex. Red Headed Stranger is about the kind of love that makes you do things outside of the norm. It’s a love that’s ever-changing and easily lost in the way that makes you strive to remember, to be remembered, or both.

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It is said that the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan confined himself in a dark room for two years after the death of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. To prove his love and immortalize her memory, Shah Jahan recruited the world’s best architects and craftsmen to construct the Taj Mahal, the Crown Palace, a world wonder. The construction took 20 years to complete; the materials were carted in from faraway lands on the backs of a thousand elephants.

When the mausoleum was completed, Shah Jahan cut off the hands of the chief architect so nothing like the Taj could ever be built again.

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In Red Headed Stranger, after heartache, love is described as a burning ember, where only memories remain. The Stranger says of his ex-lover: Through the ages, I’ll remember blue eyes crying in the rain. This refrain, low and slow and beautiful, comes right before he rides into town to kill her.

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The Taj Mahal tour guide told our group that we were not allowed to go up in one of the minarets, the tall tower at each corner of the mausoleum originally used for call to prayer, since a man had flung himself from the top of it. Here the question is not why, which cannot be answered, but how. I imagine a man stepping barefoot onto the windowsill, his toes curling against the white marble, his eyes open as his body drops. I stared up at the minaret, the top barely visible in the fog, and considered how it must feel to fall.

I can consider this to the extent that I can consider how it must feel to ride into town on a horse and shoot the person I love with a smile still on her face. It’s something past imagination, and past empathy, except to say that there are human emotions too large to explain or contain.

At key points during the narrative, Willie sidesteps explanation altogether. After we learn of the murder the Stranger commits, we hear: Don’t cross him, don’t boss him, he’s wild in his sorrow / He’s riding and hiding his pain. The pain is acknowledged, but it’s a fruitless warning, looking back on what can’t be changed.

Later, during the second-to-last song on the record, Willie sings: Well, it’s the same old song / It’s right and it’s wrong, and living is just something I do. The line is couched in one of the happiest songs on the record, which paints the full picture of redemption with the Stranger finding new love. That the line comes here bothers me, because I can’t make sense of it against the rest of the story. It feels like a cop out.

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Red Headed Stranger ends with an instrumental song called “Bandera.” You can hear echoes of the melodies that have recurred throughout, but the song is entirely its own, with a piano coming in about halfway through playing a tune that suggests resolution.

In Spanish, “Bandera” means flag. It’s not clear what that title means. It doesn’t evoke a literal flag flying in the wind or feel thematic at all. But the music does leave you with a feeling—one that encourages you to start again and to remember somehow that, Just when we think it’s all over / It’s only begun.

—Lacy Barker