Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Classic Country Ballads of Lost Love – Red Headed Stranger #westernfictioneers #countryballads #classiccountrymusic

I grew up in the late 50s and 60s listening to the country music of that era. I stuck with country music through the 70s. I made it into the 80s but, by the late 80s, country music as I knew and loved was headed in a direction that, with a few exceptions, I wasn’t interested going. So I didn’t. (Get off my lawn.)

The old west gunfighter and trail ballads, drinking songs, and revenge songs had an influence on me that was, and still is, every bit as strong as the impact Louis L’Amour’s books left with me. My lifelong interest, perhaps fascination bordering on obsession, with everything old west—truth, legends, and myths alike—have roots in those old cowboy and country songs.

 I’m inviting you to read along with me this year as I post one or two nostalgic-for-me country ballads on the first Wednesday of each month. I will share a snippet of trivia about each song along with a YouTube video.

 Each month, I will include a link back to the previous month’s article as reference to those songs. The common thread that runs among the songs I’ve chosen for this musical memory lane excursion is tragic lost love.

January – Marty Robbins – El Paso and Feleena
February – Faron Young – TheYellow Bandana
March – Willie Nelson and Ray Charles – 
Seven Spanish Angels
April – Marty Robbins – San Angelo
May – Billy Walker – Cross the Brazos at Waco
June – Billy Walker – Matamoros
July – Marty Robbins – Running Gun

This month’s song is the ballad of tragically lost love as told in Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson.

Photo of Kaye Spencer's CD

This song is so closely linked with Willie Nelson that one would think he wrote it. That is not the case. Red Headed Stranger was published in 1953 and originally written for Perry Como, who never recorded it. Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith released his version in 1954 to decent listener reception. Eddy Arnold recorded it in 1959, as did John. D. Loudermilk in the same year.

Then along came Willie Nelson, who performed the song as a ‘cradle song’ for children on an episode of his show (1954). In 1974, he wrote a concept album called Red Headed Stranger based on the song. In 1976, the song was certified gold, and in1986, it was certified double-platinum. Not too shabby.

An aside on the spelling  I came across all of these: Red-headed Stranger, Redheaded Stranger, and Red Headed Stranger. I chose to use Red Headed Stranger, since that is the spelling on Willie’s concept album.

The basic story of Red Headed Stranger is that of a stranger who rides into town on a black stallion. The stranger is leading the bay horse that once belonged to his dead wife. A woman with greedy intent, makes a grab at the bay, and the stranger shoots her dead. He’s found not guilty, because  no one…I mean no one… gets away with even attempted horse theft without serious punishment.

This is as close to a perfect lost love ballad as I think possible. It’s also so terribly, terribly sad. The stranger must have adored his late wife for the gentle and loving care he shows her little bay. Her horse keeps her memory fresh for him, almost as if she's still with him, as he wanders the west, always riding, always on the move, because he’s wild in his sorrow, ridin’ an’ hidin’ his pain...

Until next time,
Kaye Spencer
Lasterday Stories
writing through history one romance upon a time



  1. The title “Red Headed Stranger” reminds me of Willy’s movie BARBAROSA. Thank you, Kaye.

  2. Kaye, I am loving this series of yours! Some of these songs I have never heard of--so I'm getting a musical education, and I love it!

  3. If I need a good cry I either listen to these songs or read a sad story. Sometimes, I need both. Thanks for bringing these songs back to the forefront. Doris