The Meaning Behind “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson

Don’t think you can steal a man’s horse and get it away with it. Willie Nelson recorded “Red Headed Stranger” for his album of the same name, released in 1975. It’s listed by Western Writers of America in its Top 100 Western songs of all time.

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But the song was almost never released. It was intended for Perry Como. He didn’t record it due to a publishing dispute. By the time Willie Nelson recorded the song, he had to fight with his record label to release it. Even Waylon Jennings joined the scuffle with Columbia Records. Back then, “outlaw” wasn’t a genre, it was a way of life. It’s who you were. So what’s the meaning behind “Red Headed Stranger?”

The Meaning Behind the Song

It’s the tale of a stranger who comes to town on a black stallion, leading the bay horse of his dead wife. The stranger meets a “yellow-haired lady” in a tavern. She’d spotted him earlier and “cast greedy eyes on the bay.”

She follows him out of the tavern. The woman, smiling, grabs at his wife’s horse, and the stranger promptly shoots her dead. He’s found not-guilty of the murder since, naturally, the yellow-haired woman was trying to steal his horse.

She followed him out as he saddled his stallion
And laughed as she grabbed at the bay
He shot her so quick; they had no time to warn her
She never heard anyone say

The yellow-haired lady couldn’t have known what this bay horse meant to the stranger, but she quickly found out.

Don’t cross him, don’t boss him
He’s wild in his sorrow
He’s riding and hiding his pain

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The Writers

Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz wrote “Red Headed Stranger.” Ms. Lindeman was a film and theater critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Bay horses are reddish-brown or brown; the redhead who Ms. Lindeman had in mind was her husband.

This is the tale of the red headed stranger
And if he should pass your way
Stay out of the path of the raging black stallion
And don’t lay a hand on the bay

Carl Stutz, an accountant and high school math teacher, wrote the music. “Red Headed Stranger” is in the key of D. The time signature is ¾. The song was published in 1953.

The Song Almost Never Got Cut

The song was originally intended for Perry Como, but he didn’t record it due to publishing issues. Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith released a version on MGM Records in 1954. Willie Nelson sang it to his daughter at bedtime and performed it with children in mind on the radio show he hosted in Fort Worth in the mid-Fifties, The Western Express.

With inspiration from his then-wife, Connie Koepke, Nelson eventually wrote a concept album based on the song. Red Headed Stranger was released in 1975 on Columbia Records. The album was recorded on a modest budget at Autumn Sound Studios in Garland, Texas. The record label initially felt the sparse recording was under-produced. They thought it sounded like a demo. A back-and-forth ensued with Nelson’s manager, Neil Reshen, and Nelson’s friend, Waylon Jennings, as they tried to convince the label to release the album. According to Jennings’ autobiography, at one point in the discussion he called Columbia’s president a “tone-deaf, tin-eared son of a bitch.”

Columbia Records gave in and released the album, just as Willie Nelson recorded it. It reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. It was certified gold in 1976 by the Recording Industry Association of America. Ten years later, it was certified double platinum.

The success of “Red Headed Stranger” secured Willie Nelson’s outlaw image. The title became his nickname.

Other Versions

In 1959, Eddy Arnold released a version of “The Red Headed Stranger” on RCA Victor. John D. Loudermilk released his version the same year.

A 1955 live recording by Glen Glenn, featuring the Maddox Brothers and Rose, appeared on a UK compilation, Missouri Rockabilly 1955-1965.

Carla Bozulich released her version of The Red Headed Stranger, the album, in 2003. It features collaborations with Willie Nelson and Nels Cline from Wilco.

Willie Nelson and Jack White recorded a duet version of the song for White’s Third Man Records in Nashville. It was released in 2013 as a six-inch single.

The tale of the “Red Headed Stranger” is colorful and vivid. It’s grounded by the scarcity of production and instrumentation. It’s Willie and his guitar, Trigger; a timid, muted rhythm section; twinkling piano; and Willie front and center with nothing but the story and the song.

“Red Headed Stranger” is truly timeless. Both the song and the story endure, and the stranger rolls on.

Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

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