Willie Nelson’s Label Thought His Album ‘Red Headed Stranger’ Was A Demo Tape, Tried To Make Him Go Back In The Studio To “Polish It”

Willie Nelson country music

Red Headed Stranger.

It’s the album that gave Willie Nelson his first #1 hit. It made him a household name in country music, and has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

But his record label hated it.

By 1975, Willie Nelson had already released an astonishing 17 studio albums. Much of his early work was released with his first label, RCA. But in 1972, amid contentious contract negotiations and disappointed by the sales of his albums to that point, Willie decided to retire from music and leave Nashville to move back to his native Texas

Obviously it was a short-lived hiatus. Once he returned to Texas, Willie found a music scene that not only accepted him but also allowed his popularity to soar. He decided to give the recording industry another shot, and hired a manager to negotiate with his record label.

RCA eventually agreed to allow Willie out of his contract, and Willie then signed on to be the first country artist on Atlantic Records.

His time at Atlantic was a modest success, and also marked a change in style for Willie: He said that his first release with Atlantic, Shotgun Willie, “cleared his throat” and allowed him to find his own sound once again.

But after just two albums, Atlantic Records decided to shut down its country division, once again leaving Willie Nelson without a home.

Willie then turned to Columbia Records, signing a deal that – importantly to this story – gave him complete creative control over his music, thanks to the success of his two releases at Atlantic.

The Birth of the “Red Headed Stranger”

For his first album with Columbia Records, Willie’s then-wife Connie Koepke inspired him to write a western-themed concept album. She suggested that he include a song that he had sang not only on his radio shows in the 1950s but also one that he would sing to his children at bedtime: “Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger” by Arthur Smith.

Nelson decided to base his album on this song, writing a story that describes the events surrounding the “Tale of the Red-Headed Stranger.” And he also included some cover songs in the story, including Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”

With the album ready to be put to tape, Willie knew that he wanted to find a studio in Texas (as opposed to the studios in Nashville and New York City he had used previously) to avoid the over-production and modifications that had been made to his previous albums.

He settled on Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas, which offered him a free day of recording in order to promote the newly-opened studio.

After the initial recording, and not liking the mixes that he heard, Willie decided to strip back the instrumentation on the album and ordered the engineer to undo the production he had done, remarking that it was too similar to what they had done to his music in Nashville.

The “Finished” Product?

Album in hand, it was time to take Red Headed Stranger to his label.

And they hated it.

Columbia executives felt that the album was too under-produced, and initially thought it was just a demo as opposed to the finished product.

According to Nelson:

“When the chief Columbia bigwig heard the tracks, he said, ‘Why are you turning in a demo?'”

Willie explained to them that it wasn’t a demo, it was the finished product. And he asked the label what they expected a finished product to sound like:

“Anything but this. The songs feel disconnected. The mood is too down. And the sound is far too flat. You need to go back in and polish it.”

Not happy with the response from his label, Willie sent his manager, along with Waylon Jennings, to New York City to meet with the president of Columbia, Bruce Lundvall. But Lundvall also wasn’t a fan of the album, suggesting that Red Headed Stranger be sent to Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, who worked extensively with superstars like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, to overdub the tracks with further recordings.

Well this suggestion didn’t go over well with Waylon Jennings, who called Lundvall a “tone-deaf, tin-eared sonofabitch.”

And when Sherrill heard the album, he had some harsh words for the recording as well:

“Did he make this in his living room? It’s a piece of shit! It sounds like he did this for about two bucks. It’s not produced.”

Complete Creative Control

But Nelson’s contract gave him complete creative control – so it ultimately didn’t matter what anybody else thought about the album.

Red Headed Stranger was released without any further production, against the wishes of his record label.

And it immediately drew rave reviews. One writer said that the album was “almost Gospel,” and another praised the album as one that would “bring Willie to the forefront as one of the nation’s top country-western recording artists.”

Well, that’s exactly what it did.

The album went to the top of the Billboard albums chart, and also gave Willie his first #1 single with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which has become one of his signature songs.

It also gave birth to “Red Headed Stranger” as one of Willie’s nicknames, and has since been certified double platinum, selling more than 2 million copies – after only costing $20,000 to record.

Red Headed Stranger launched Willie Nelson to superstardom and cemented his legacy as one of the outlaws of country music. It’s been named to Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time, and also inspired a movie of the same name starring Nelson himself.

Not bad for an album that his label thought was “just a demo.”

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock