In this “Colorado Song” installment, we will look at “Denver,” from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album. The song lasts less than a minute, but it is quite pleasant and worth listening to.
Red Headed Stranger is a concept album that was released in 1975. It was the first album Willie recorded for Columbia Records under a contract that gave him complete creative control over his recordings. The concept was based on a song that had been written for Perry Como in 1954 – though Como never recorded it. At that time, Willie was the host of a radio show called “The Western Express” on station KCNC in Fort Worth, Texas. For three hours (and later, four hours), he would sing and play guitar, play records and take calls from listeners. He began playing the version of “Red Headed Stranger” released by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and sometimes singing it, himself. Willie used it as a “cradle song” to get children in the audience to take their naps at 1:00 p.m., and he sang it at bedtime for his own daughter – though it certainly is not a children’s song.
The story that is told begins with a cowboy coming home and finding his wife has left him. Throughout the first side of the album, another short song written by Willie, “Time of the Preacher,” is repeated several times, with slight differences. At the end of the first version, before the cowboy learns of his wife’s infidelity, we are told “now the preachin’ is over and the lesson’s begun.” The next version comes after he finds his wife gone, and this one ends: “Now the lesson is over and the killin’s begun.” It is followed by another short piece, a medley of a Willie Nelson composition called “Blue Rock, Montana” and a few lines from “Red Headed Stranger,” which tell of the cowboy finding his wife and her lover “in a quiet little out of the way place.” They are not a sympathetic couple, for “they smiled at each other as he walked through the door/and they died with their smiles on their faces,/yes, they died with their smiles on their face.”
After he has killed the unfortunate couple, the cowboy realizes what he has done, and his lament is described in “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” which became Willie’s signature song. That is followed by “Red Headed Stranger,” telling how the cowboy rides away, “wild in his sorrow,” taking his deceased wife’s horse with him. In another town, he meets a blonde woman who tries to play upon his affections and steal his wife’s horse; but as soon as she reaches for the horse, he shoots and kills her, also. We are told:
“The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset;
The stranger went free, of course,
For you can’t hang a man for killin’ a woman
Who’s tryin’ to steal your horse.”
As you can see, it’s not really a children’s song
“Time of the Preacher” is then reprised, this time ending, “when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun.”
The cowboy heads south, and the second side of the album begins with the song featured here, “Denver.” Continue reading