On This Day: Willie Nelson Releases Landmark Album ‘Red Headed Stranger’ in 1975

by Jim Casey

Willie Nelson released his landmark album, Red Headed Stranger, on May 26, 1975.

In the 1960s, Willie Nelson made a name for himself as a talented songwriter. He penned hits for Faron Young (“Hello Walls”), Patsy Cline (“Crazy”), and Ray Price (“Night Life”). However, as a singer, he only achieved modest success on the charts, including two Top 10s—”Willingly” and “Touch Me”—in 1962. Clean-cut and suited-up, Willie wasn’t the Outlaw pioneer and superstar we know today. However, with 1975’s concept album, Red Headed Stranger, Willie entered a star-powered stratosphere.

Stranger Than Fiction

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Nashville, Willie floundered on the charts with more than a dozen songs, before heading home to Texas to do music his way. Soon after, Willie grew a beard, long locks, and a new attitude. In the mid-1970s, he leveraged minor album successes with Atlantic into a CBS/Columbia deal for creative control in making a concept album, Red Headed Stranger.

When Willie was laying out the blueprint for the album, he chose the Fred Rose-penned “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” as an outside cut. The reaction to that song proved the tipping point in convincing Willie’s label to green light Red Headed Stranger. The label, which felt the project sounded too much like an under-produced demo, played the album for media and guests at the Exit/In venue in Nashville.

In the 2013 book, Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, Dan Beck of CBS/Columbia noted: “When the first song finished, there was no comment. You couldn’t get a read from what was going on in the room. But when ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’ came on, everyone in the room broke into applause.”

Red Headed Success for Willie

Willie released Red Headed Stranger on May 26, 1975. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was chosen as the album’s lead single and released in July. In October, the tune reached the top of the chart to become Willie’s first No. 1 single as an artist. The song also earned Willie a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance – Male in 1976. In addition, the album topped the chart and was certified 2X Platinum by the RIAA for sales of 2 million units.

Willie soon joined forces with Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser for 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, which became the first country album to sell 1 million units. Massively successful albums Waylon & Willie (1976, 2X Platinum) and Stardust (1978, 5X Platinum) followed.

Willie’s long-haired country began selling out arena-sized venues. And that’s the Willie Way we know today.