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.” It tells how he rides into Denver and goes to a tavern, which is “a quiet little out of the way place,” just like the one where he confronted his unfaithful wife. There, he meets another woman, and the two “smiled at each other as he walked through the door,” again hearkening back to his murderous act – only this time, “they danced with the smiles on their faces.” In the following song (not counting a couple of brief instrumentals), “Can I Sleep in Your Arms,” we see that he is ready to be redeemed by a new love; and in “Remember Me” he realizes that he is, indeed, free to love again. Apparently, his new love was a more true and lasting, for in “Hands on the Wheel” we are told about the cowboy as an old man, down by the river with a young boy – apparently his grandson – and “a lady that they both enjoy.”
The entire album features very sparse and spare arrangements. Mostly, it is Willie and his guitar, his sister Bobbie on piano, and a drummer. Apparently, Columbia Records thought Willie had recorded simply a demo, and they were not very impressed. However, since Willie had contracted for full creative control, he insisted that the album be released as it was. He instincts were good, and the album sold over 2 million copies, and Rolling Stone counts it among the top 200 albums of all time. It was re-released in 2000.
Willie Nelson was not living in Colorado when he wrote and recorded the Red Headed Stranger album, but he and his wife at the time, Connie Koepke, had just returned from a ski vacation in Aspen. Perhaps that is why he chose Denver as the place the cowboy/stranger met his true love.
A few months later, Willie bought a 116-acre ranch on Upper Bear Creek Road, in Clear Creek County, Colorado. He did not spend a lot of time there, because he was often on the road again, and he had other homes in Austin, Texas and on the island of Maui. Still, it is a beautiful location, and Willie became known locally for stopping into the Little Bear Saloon in Evergreen and playing with whomever happened to be there when he was in town.
In 1990, Willie’s assets, including the Colorado property, were seized by the IRS, which claimed he owed some $32 million in back taxes. That sum was negotiated down to about $6 million, but the ranch was still sold to pay the government..
To drive into Denver from Evergreen or from an Aspen ski vacation, the most direct route is along I-70. At night, as one passes Genesee Park and heads down Mount Vernon Canyon the lights of Denver suddenly come into view, and they do look like “diamonds,” or “ten thousand jewels in the sky.” After his ranch was sold, Willie noted, “I wrote a lot of songs while I was living in Colorado, had a lot of fun, did a lot of nice things that you can only do in Colorado. It affected me in a lot of ways. I sure hated to leave, I know that.”
By Willie Nelson
The bright lights of Denver
Were shining like diamonds
Like ten thousand jewels in the sky
And it’s nobody’s business
Where you’re goin’ or where you come from
And you’ve judged by the look in your eye
She saw him that evening in a tavern in town
In a quiet little out of the way place
And they smiled at each other
As he walked through the door
And they danced with their smiles on their faces
And they danced with their smiles on their face
© SONY/ATV MUSIC PUBLISHING LLC
For an index of the Colorado Songs in this series, please click here.