But in 1975, few in the music business knew what to make of Nelson. He was a gifted songwriter, but his own albums hadn’t sold well, he’d been dropped by his previous label, and he’d just handed in a stripped-down album called “Red Headed Stranger.” That album went on to become one of Nelson’s landmarks, effectively launching his career as a country superstar — but at the time, not everyone was convinced.
In this excerpt from “Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear,” the authorized biography by Dan Ouellette of the legendary record executive, Lundvall and Nelson talk about how “Red Headed Stranger” was recorded, received and almost rejected by some of the executives at Lundvall’s label, Columbia.
Willie Nelson was gone. While Waylon Jennings fought against the status quo of the early Seventies as an RCA artist, Nelson high-tailed it out of Nashville to his native Texas after recording 13 albums for RCA. Some people referred to the move as Nelson’s retirement; others said he just wanted out from the increasingly parochial mind-set of the small Tennessee town with the mammoth impact in the record-selling world. Well-known as a stellar songwriter (he composed the tune “Crazy,” a big hit for Patsy Cline) yet not a highly marketable musician as a leader (his albums, which he complained were overproduced, had only modest sales), Nelson retreated to explore his true identity as an artist.
When Bruce Lundvall became president of Columbia Records, country was on his mind. In 1973, Nelson had been signed by Jerry Wexler to Atlantic Records’ Nashville experiment with new country, which resulted in his two albums Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages. “But then Atlantic dropped its entire country roster, including Willie,” Lundvall says. “I got a call from Willie’s manager, Neil Reshen, who also managed Miles Davis and Waylon Jennings. I told him, yes, I’d love to sign Willie.”
Lundvall didn’t know a whole lot about Willie, except that he was an excellent songwriter. But people at Columbia branches in Dallas and Houston told him that his signing would be the best thing the label could do. “So I called Billy Sherrill, who was head of A&R in Nashville and who reported to me,” Lundvall says. “He was a very successful guy, and very independent. He was getting hits with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich. He was the king of Nashville.”
Sherrill balked at Willie’s signing. “Bruce, he’s not one of the Nashville guys,” he said.
Lundvall replied, “But he’s a great songwriter.”
“I still don’t like it.”
“Well, I’m going to sign him.”
As part of the deal, Nelson was given full control over producing his albums — something unheard of in Nashville. “Willie wanted that,” says Lundvall. “I believed he could do it.” Says Nelson, “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.”
Soon after the signing, Reshen called Lundvall and said he had Willie’s album and wanted to play it for him. Reshen showed up at Lundvall’s office with Jennings and played the acetate. Lundvall’s ears perked up, especially when Nelson sang his rendition of the Forties Fred Rose song “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The more Lundvall listened to the album, the more he recognized the difference in Nelson’s production, with the background vocals and strings missing. “I said that it sounded like it wasn’t a produced record but was something that sounded like it was done in Willie’s living room,” says Lundvall. “That’s when Waylon jumped up on my desk and said, ‘That’s what Willie’s all about. He doesn’t need a producer.'”
Lundvall sent Sherrill an acetate. His response: He hated it, hated the production and agreed that it sounded like a living room recording. He voted not to release it.
Meanwhile Lundvall slept on it. He took the demo home over the weekend, played it over and over, and fell in love with it. “The next week I went into the office and scheduled a meeting with the whole Columbia Records staff,” Lundvall says. “I told everyone this is Willie’s labor of love. He’s always wanted to do this record. It’s going to be a collector’s item. It’s not going to sell, but it’s special.”
As it turned out, Red Headed Stranger — 33 minutes and 30 seconds of pure golden country — made a huge splash. Largely played by an acoustic guitar, piano and drums and recorded with a low-production feel — fully bucking the Nashville establishment — it turned out to be one of the anthems of the progressive country movement. Its bare-basics style flew in the face of Nashville’s overproduced style that dominated country music at the time. Red Headed Stranger sold multiplatinum and went on to garner the No. 184 ranking on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, score Number One on CMT’s 40 greatest albums, and in 2010 be inducted into the National Recording Registry.
Nelson remains modest about how Red Headed Stranger came to be such an influential album that didn’t need any makeup or facelifts. “I wasn’t really that smart,” he says. “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.”
Using a simple, down-home approach, Nelson forged a revolution in country, thanks in large part to Lundvall allowing Willie to be Willie. “Real artists have the vision,” Lundvall says. “The record company doesn’t.” Adds Nelson, “In those days, and maybe these days too, you’ve got your producer guy and your marketing guy who have the ideas before the record comes out, so it’s up to them. I appreciate the fact that I was allowed to say, ‘Let’s try it this way, and we’ll see how it works.’ That’s what Bruce let me do.”
From the book “Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear,” by Dan Ouellette. Copyright 2014 by Dan Ouellette. Published by ArtistShare.