“In the early Seventies, Willie Nelson was a songwriter legend, with such classics as ‘Crazy’ and ‘Hello Walls’ behind him, but wasn't a major-league artist on his own. When his Nashville home burned down, he hightailed it back to Texas” (Tyrangiel/ Light) and “introduced a new sense of ambition and possibility to the genre” (Tyrangiel/ Light) by “remaking himself as a country music outlaw, as he and such kindred, independent spirits as Waylon Jennings became known” (Tyrangiel/ Light). “Nelson’s somber voice and lurching guitar and sister Bobbie’s exquisite piano shaped a dark and dense masterwork having nothing to do with Nashville” (Blender).
Red Headed Stranger is “a self-produced (heresy to the Nashville establishment) concept album” (Tyrangiel/ Light) that “perhaps is the strangest blockbuster country produced” (Erlewine). It is an “outlaw landmark – not a yee-ha! on it” (Blender). “Red Headed Stranger tells the story of a renegade “preacher on the run after murdering his departed wife and her new lover” (Erlewine). The story is “told entirely with brief song-poems and utterly minimal backing. It's defiantly anticommercial and it demands intense concentration – all reasons why nobody thought it would be a hit, a story related in Chet Flippo's liner notes to the 2000 reissue” (Erlewine).
“It was a phenomenal blockbuster, though” (Erlewine); “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain was a Number One [country] single” (Tyrangiel/ Light). The success of the album helped in “establishing Nelson as a superstar recording artist in its own right” (Erlewine).
“For all its success, it still remains a prickly, difficult album, though, making the interspersed concept of Phases and Stages sound shiny in comparison. It’s difficult because it’s old-fashioned, sounding like a tale told around a cowboy campfire. Now, this all reads well on paper, and there’s much to admire in Nelson’s intimate gamble, but it’s really elusive, as the themes get a little muddled and the tunes themselves are a bit bare. It’s undoubtedly distinctive – and it sounds more distinctive with each passing year – but it’s strictly an intellectual triumph and, after a pair of albums that were musically and intellectually sound, it’s a bit of a letdown, no matter how successful it was” (Erlewine).
Regardless, the album could well be attributed to launching the outlaw country movement – “when Stranger was followed up with the breakthrough collection Wanted! The Outlaws (with Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser), country music had entered a new era – and Willie Nelson was an international superstar” (Tyrangiel/ Light).
Blender Magazine’s 100 Greatest American Albums (10/08)