Now 77, Willie Nelson has been part of America’s cultural consciousness for so long it’s hard to remember that this brilliant, braided, pot-smoking iconoclast spent the beginning of his career penning tunes for others, because few had faith in his sandpapery warble of a voice. After bouncing from RCA to Atlantic, Nelson landed at Columbia, for which he recorded 1975’s Red Headed Stranger. A string of sparse vignettes, Stranger would cement Nelson’s outlaw image, and become a huge success. The wondrous mix of cover and original songs, such as “Time Of The Preacher,” “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True,” “O’er The Waves,” and “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” stand out alone, but hearing them in context brings deeper emotional rewards.
Impex’s 180-gram vinyl reissue sounds terrific. The main attraction, of course, is Nelson’s vocal performance. It’s surely one of his finest; I’ve never heard him convey greater or more pure expression. His singing is understated, poetic, powerfully affecting. The recording, with its focus on his voice, seems to isolate him within but apart from the minimal accompaniment, which is little more than piano, guitar, bass, and a tapped snare rim. The balance is superb, the record itself something of a must-have.