This wonderful classic of the Willie Nelson was written by Fred Rose. So the story starts when Willie Nelson first moved to Nashville in 1960, however, it took fifteen years and a return to Texas before he got the connection with the public in a big way. He had his first chart success in 1962, hitting the Top ten with “Touch me” and “Willingly,” the latter duet with his future wife, Shirley Collie but Nelson failed to follow through on that promise.
Nelson made a number of albums for RCA and Atlantic labels for the coming years, but onlookers said that he was “ahead of his time” or that he “played too many chords.” He settled in Austin, Texas in 1971 and it was where he found his audience – a mixture of hippies and rednecks – through Amarillo World Headquarters, where he first appeared on August of 1972. After a year, the held the first quasi-annual Willie Nelson picnic on the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, just as he was establishing his niche, Atlantic closed its country division. He bought out his contract in 1974 and signed with Columbia Records, where he was given “creative control.”
Nelson really had any idea what to do with that control though, until his drive from Colorado to Texas. During his trip, he and his wife Connie formulated a concept album about a preacher in the Old West based around the song “Red Headed Stranger,” which Willie had first heard while working as a disc jockey in the mid ‘50’s. The mixed older songs with several of Nelson’s own compositions to tie the story together. He recorded the whole thing in just three days at a cost of $20,000 at the Autumn Sound Studio in Garland, Texas, However Columbia was less than thrilled with the results.
To the executives of the label, it seemed the record wasn’t finished. They thought it was under-produced and too sparse in its instrumentation. However, since they had already put out money for the project, it was decided to go ahead and try to distribute and market the album under the legal terms of Nelson’s contract. “Red Headed Stranger” was released in May of 1975 and by July 19th. Willie’s first selection for a single had made Billboard’s country chart and was starting its slow but steady climb to the top. The song was “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” written by Fred Rose way back in 1945. Many people had recorded the tune over the years, but surprisingly, no one had ever charted with it. Roy Acuff had the original cut on the song, then Hank Williams did a performance of it on one of his “Mother’s Best Flour” radio programs. Later versions followed by Ferlin Husky, Slim Whitman, Bill Anderson and several others (just to help fill albums). Before Nelson’s single, the most recent cut of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” had been a rendition by Conway Twitty on his “Hello Darlin’” album in June 1970.
Its ascension was slow, but Willie’s recording of “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” eventually reached the #1 plateau of Billboard’s country singles chart on October 4, 1975, and catapulted him to super-stardom as a recording artist. Songwriter Fred Rose (who died in December 1954) would have been pleased. On February 28, 1976, the single that Columbia didn’t want to release, from an album the company’s executives considered sub-par, brought Nelson a Grammy award. Ultimately, the “Red Headed Stranger” package sold 2.5 million units, and Willie turned it into a movie co-starring Morgan Fairchild and Katherine Ross in 1987.
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