Willie Nelson reached large scale success in 1975 -- Twenty years ago the singer released ''Red Headed Stranger'' to surprising results

By Alanna Nash
Updated July 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The year was 1975, and Willie Nelson figured he could trust bad luck more than good. His last album, Phases and Stages, had sold a pleasant 400,000 copies, but 21 previous records had largely lackluster sales. He’d tried pig farming on the side and ”lost my ass and all its fixtures.” His house had burned down, and rushing into the flames, he’d saved only his guitar and a pound of Colombian weed. So, after years of bucking the country establishment in Nashville, playing bass for Ray Price, and watching songs he wrote for himself (”Crazy,” ”Night Life,” ”Hello, Walls”) become hits for others, Nelson, who had moved back to his native Texas in 1970, got ready to deliver his Columbia debut, Red Headed Stranger, a concept album of love, murder, and redemption involving an Old West preacher and his cuckolding wife.

It was Nelson’s first effort at combining his own songs with others’ in a cohesive story. ”I wrote it as if I were the guy, which is probably the way I write everything,” he would later say. Produced in three days for $20,000 in a small studio in Garland, Tex., Stranger was everything a commercial country record shouldn’t be. It was a song cycle, not a grab bag of detached ditties. It used his own rough-edged band instead of smooth studio pickers. When Billy Sherrill, Columbia’s top man in Nashville, heard it, he walked out of the room. When Waylon Jennings and Willie’s manager, Neil Reshen, played it for the New York brass, they thought it was a demo. Nelson reminded them of his creative-control clause and pledged to give it up if the LP bombed — but not even he foresaw what was about to happen.

Stranger became the first Nelson album ever to reach the Billboard pop chart when it debuted at No. 189 on July 26, 1975. It yielded two crossover singles, ”Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and ”Remember Me.” The album, too, was a mainstream hit, selling like Gatorade at a chili cook-off-some 2 million copies over the next decade. It propelled Nelson to cult status overnight and, most important, introduced modern country music, single-handedly revitalizing a genre long considered the province of hayseeds.

Willie’s bad luck wasn’t done. He has sold some 75 million copies of 127 albums, but recent years have seen a celebrated run-in with the IRS over back taxes and the suicide of his son, Billy. His new records, like those of fellow old-timers Jennings and Merle Haggard, can’t find airtime anymore. But at 62, Willie takes all that in stride. ”I sit around and wait to see what’s gonna happen next,” he says. ”I’m just here to stir it up.”

Time Capsule
July 26, 1975

Looking For Mr. Goodbar picked up more readers than any other book of fiction; Jaws chewed up the big-screen competition; TV’s All in the Family had America in stitches; and everyone listened to — and did — ”The Hustle.”