It’s hard to imagine that ever being the case now as it’s become such a classic piece of art, but even over 45 years ago, record labels often had no clue what they were talking about and didn’t really know what people actually wanted to hear.
The album itself is pretty stripped down concept record, where Willie tells stories about a fugitive who’s on the run from the law after killing his wife and her lover. It was inspired by a song Willie played as a DJ on his Fort Worth, Texas radio show called “Tale of the Red Headed Stranger”.
The radio show was actually a kids show that would run every day for 30 minutes in the early afternoon, but Willie tended to take some liberties with his song choices, also including some not-so kid friendly tracks like Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle” in the lineup.
After they fleshed out all of the individual stories and tracklisting, most of the songs were recorded in Garland, Texas in one or two takes. His classic fan-favorite and first #1 hit on country radio, “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” was done in one take with everyone sitting in a circle to create in intimate setting similar to a house show.
Due to the similarities of the protagonist of the stories you hear in the record, like the blue eyes and red hair, it also gave Willie a nickname that has lasted for decades.
Of course, because the album was so bare bones in terms of instrumentation and production, a lot of people in the industry in Nashville were upset that it saw so much success.
Willie’s move back to Austin to write and record the album proved to be exactly what he needed at the time, as the project revived his career and put him at the forefront of the outlaw movement in country music. It went on to peak at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country charts that year, and was eventually made into a movie based on the story of the album in 1986.
Just prior to this record, though, Willie had been dropped by Atlantic Records and was signed to Columbia Records. And, as a part of that deal, he was given full creative control over producing all of his albums, which was completely unheard of in Nashville at the time, but he knew what he wanted to put out:
“I felt like I knew what I wanted to do. I was in the best position to know what I was needing to be doing.
I was out there every night — [not like] a guy sitting behind a desk who doesn’t get out as much as I do. I was more in the know.”
Wille doesn’t take a lot of credit for his masterful project, saying that he was just doing what he knew the audiences liked while trying to be as authentic as he possibly could be for himself:
“I wasn’t really that smart. I was playing areas down in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and I knew what [the audiences] liked.
I knew they liked this music, the real simple three-chord country stuff. It was missing on the radio, so they were glad to see it come back. I didn’t do anything brilliant.
And I didn’t think it was radical. Maybe a little reckless. I just jumped in front of the crowd and became the leader.”
If there ever was a more brilliant, classic and country album put out, I haven’t heard it.
The true genius is in the simplicity, and it was the catalyst that helped bring back the true country sound people were so hungry to hear on the radio. Whether the record labels realized that or not, clearly, it ended up being exactly what the industry needed.