Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ May Have Been Scrapped if Waylon Jennings Hadn’t Intervened

by Jonathan Howard
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When you talk about legends in country music history, there are few on the level of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

The two singer-songwriters and friends worked together quite a bit in their careers. Back in the 1970s, there were few that would go to bat for Nelson as Jennings did. That included standing up to the executives over at Columbia Records and setting them straight on what is now a classic album for Nelson.

Imagine a world in which Red Headed Stranger had been overproduced and “tweaked.” Honestly, I’d rather not think about it too much. The album is raw and bare and at the time was something very different. Willie Nelson would not be the “Red Headed Stranger” today if it had gone differently.

When the record execs heard the album for the first time, they hated it. Like, a lot. In fact, they wanted to bring in producer Billy Sherrill. Their idea was that Sherrill would make the album sound like a professionally finished piece. In case you can’t tell, the production value isn’t high on the album. Thankfully, Waylon Jennings was ready to stand up for his fellow artist and friend.

“I like strings, and Billy Sherrill is great at what he does,” Jennings recalled saying in an interview years later. “But you don’t get me at all.”

“I said, ‘take that tape off or you won’t be my manager or Willie’s either,'” the singer continued. “I said, ‘that’s stupid,’ you know, and I called him a bad name. And uh, he had not a clue about this music and I said get it off. So I got up and I said, ‘I know I’m in your office and I’m getting out. That’s it.'”

What Did Jennings Say to His Manager About Willie Nelson Album Debacle?

During the interview, Jennings didn’t say exactly what he said at the time. However, there are reports about what he said to Bruce Lundvall. According to his autobiography, Jennings went pretty far when the manager criticized Willie Nelson’s album.

He called Lundvall a, “tone-deaf, tin-eared sonofabitch.” Honestly, I expected nothing else from the outlaw country singer.

Just listening to Red Headed Stranger today, it is a wonder why these executives thought the album wouldn’t do well. However, that is what makes Nelson a pioneer of country music. He’s a legend because no one else can quite do what he does the way he does it.

It is very strange looking at those criticisms today. Now, there are a lot of artists that have tried to do the raw and simple sound. What Willie Nelson was doing in 1975, other artists would die to get that genuine sound and simpleness into their own music.

Outsider.com