As 1974 rolled into 1975, Autumn Sound was in serious need of business. The recording studio, operated out of an otherwise ordinary shopping center in Garland, featured a 24-track studio console — reportedly the first of its kind in Texas — and it had a secret weapon in the form of its engineer, Phil York. In later years York became well-known, as accomplished an engineer as anyone, and he had an idea about how to draw in some big-name business.
As luck would have it, a high-profile Texan was searching for the perfect studio where he could make a statement. That Texan was Willie Nelson, and his harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, had been hanging around Autumn Sound and felt it would be a fine place to lay down Nelson’s next record. In short order, York offered Nelson a free day of studio time, and the wheels of music history turned.
As we celebrate the 40th birthday of Nelson’s seminal Red Headed Stranger, it’s important to note that Nelson hasn’t always been the definition of Texas cool we know him as today. Prior to 1975, Nelson had made it onto the country music map by writing a few hit songs and also releasing the divorce-themed concept record Phases and Stages and the country-funk gem Shotgun Willie. But neither now-revered record managed to crack the top 30 on Billboard’s country albums chart. Regardless, Nelson had established himself as a promising recording artist. The Bob Wills devotee, not yet sporting his famous pigtails, was finally being recognized for his own recordings and not just his writing.
When Nelson’s record deal with Atlantic ended, he was left looking for a new label to call home, as Atlantic wasn’t ready to grant Nelson the creative freedom he sought. But it would only be a few months before the Abbott native ascended to household-name status. In January of 1975, with a new deal from Columbia Records that included complete control over the finished product, Nelson set up shop at Autumn Sound and recorded a morose concept record which hardly resembled the lavishly produced country sounds of the time.
Autumn Sound is long-since gone, but it has carried on in other forms. Although York and the other staff all moved on, in 1981 the space became Audio Dallas, which operates in Garland to this day. And Autumn Sound’s legacy remains intact in Red Headed Stranger, which is one hell of an honor. When it was released in May 1975 it changed country music history and, in the process, turned Willie Nelson the songwriter into Willie the transcendent Lone Star Icon.
Nelson was ready to leave Music Row completely behind, and his concept for the record was as dreary and odd to most people as the songs’ jazzy, spartan arrangements. Red Headed Stranger tells the story of a preacher who murders his adulterous wife and her lover, afterward wandering the country in despair. It didn’t match the pristine image put forth by Kenny Rogers’ beard or Dolly Parton’s gold-spun locks. Relying on a gospel-tinged jazz feel courtesy of a piano and Nelson’s acoustic guitar, there were none of the lush instrumental fireworks that country music hits of the time boasted. Now four decades removed, it’s easy to underestimate the risk Nelson took in recording it. As biographer Joe Nick Patoski succinctly puts it in An Epic Life, “If it didn’t sell, there would be no second Columbia album.”
It’s been widely reported that Columbia gave Nelson a $100,000 advance, of which he only spent $4,000 on the studio recording. (In It’s a Long Story: My Life, Nelson’s recent autobiography, he corroborates the story, although he puts the figures at $60,000 and $2,000, respectively). Five Nelson originals, including the beautiful, groundbreaking “Time of the Preacher,” were blended with 10 tunes by other writers, such as Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep in Your Arms” and the song that launched the record into the stratosphere, Fred Rose’s aching “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
Nelson knew he had a record unlike any other, and he felt the public was ready for it, though other insiders disagreed. In his book, Patoski discusses how influential Austin DJ Joe Gracey thought Red Headed Stranger had missed the mark. A prominent Austin country DJ not giving Willie a full endorsement seems crazy now, of course. “I thought it was a career-ending mistake, because it was too stark and too off-the-wall,” Gracey is quoted as saying. Even York admitted to being unconvinced: “I didn’t know the album was anything special,” he told Patoski.
But special it was. While it may have been unpolished and mercurial, the album became a smash hit in every sense. Nelson earned his first Billboard No. 1 country single with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and the LP enjoyed several weeks atop the Billboard country albums list. After only a few months, the album was certified Gold, at the time a level rarely achieved so quickly by country albums.
From there, the history of Red Headed Stranger is the stuff of legend. It set Nelson on the superstar trail that landed him movie deals and headline slots in arenas no other country artist had ever played. Together with Waylon Jennings’ 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes, it helped ignite the so-called “outlaw movement” of the late 1970s, providing the public with a truly viable form of alternative country music. Without it, there would be no songs about Waylon, Willie and the boys hanging around places like Luckenbach, a far cry from oily, slick Nashville. It’s been canonized by the country and rock music press alike, declared the top album on CMT’s Top 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music list and No. 183 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Given all of the accolades that followed, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the album was recorded right here in Garland. Arguably, no other album recorded in the Dallas area has had as significant an impact on the music world as Red Headed Stranger. And Nelson, as astute as ever, knew a good thing when he found it: He returned to Autumn Sound before the end of 1975 to record his follow-up, The Sound in Your Mind, which became the top-selling country album of 1976.
Nelson visited Autumn Sound again to record Family Bible in 1980, shortly before the studio became Audio Dallas. He had an epic run of 17 albums that reached Billboard’s Top 5 between 1975 and 1989, but it all started with those 1975 sessions for Red Headed Stranger, which became one of Nelson’s best-known nicknames. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t be the legend he is today if it weren’t for that long-forgotten recording studio just outside Dallas.