Stranger Than Fiction

Carla Bozulich has the balls to remake a classic

Oct 29, 2003 at 4:00 am
In 1975 Willie Nelson released Red Headed Stranger, a concept album he developed with his wife, Connie, during a long drive from Colorado to Texas. The song "Red Headed Stranger," which Nelson used to sing as a bedtime story to his children, became the central point from which his myth of an outlaw radiated. The album tells the tale of an itinerant preacher who comes home one night to find his wife in bed with another man. Seeing the only woman he ever loved in the arms of another, the preacher draws his gun in a fit of rage and shoots the lovers dead on the spot. After fleeing the scene, "the Stranger," as he comes to be known, wanders the country alone on horseback. The depth of his despair eats at his soul and he vows to himself that he'll never love or trust anyone again. In time loneliness eclipses his sorrow: The Stranger falls in love with a woman in Denver, fathers a son with her and finds redemption. End of story. Pass the tissues, Tito....

Not surprisingly, Red Headed Stranger became a hit record for Nelson, and every aspect of it was lauded. The concept is a simple, timeless tale of an archetypal wanderer. Musically, the sparse instrumentation and minimal production increase the songs' impact, and by understating melodic embellishments, the core of each tonal phrase stands naked as a deeply rooted truth. The lyrics follow the same central idea of simplicity; every line is a small, delicate flower contributing to an overall bouquet of vividly poignant poetry. And vocally, Willie's about as believable as they come. It's an impeccably executed record in every respect and is often regarded as Nelson's finest hour.

It would seem pointless for anyone to redo Red Headed Stranger. Remakes of legendary recordings are seldom the stuff of legend themselves (see Billy Corgan, re: "Landslide"). Anyone thinking they could do justice to Nelson's subtly miraculous accomplishments on Red Headed Stranger must have balls o' brass, right? Nope.

"His album is nothing like our album," says Carla Bozulich of the contrast between Willie's Red Headed Stranger and the song-for-song remake she's just released and is now touring to support. "The songs are like day and night. His are day, ours are night."

Bozulich is probably best known as the feisty vocalist for the now-disbanded country/art punk outfit The Geraldine Fibbers, but that's only a sliver of the tip of the iceberg. In addition to earlier work with the groove/sex/ assault unit Ethyl Meatplow and art punks the Neon Veins, she's collaborated with a long list of luminaries on projects vocal and instrumental; not the least of these would be the mighty Mike Watt on his release Ballhog, or Tugboat?. Bozulich is renowned as a consummate improviser on a number of instruments as well as a vocalist of the highest order, and her flair for innovation is rivaled only by the sheer diversity of the work she chooses to tackle.

I spoke with Bozulich just before her sound check at the Pilot Light in Knoxville and asked what brought about the interest in recording Red Headed Stranger. Her reply came in a calm, almost sleepy version of her sultry, alto voice.

"I had been playing songs from it for years. I wanted to do something where my songwriting was not the focus and where my singing was more the focus, because I had taken several years off from real 'singerly' kind of music. I had been doing a lot of instrumental improvisation, mostly, just kind of taking a break from singing and songwriting," she explains. "I got kinda sick of my voice after touring ten months a year for twelve years. When I decided I wanted to start singing again, I wanted to do something that was really vocal-oriented but wasn't full of the pressure of having my own songwriting and putting together this whole big project. It just seemed like a cool little thing, sort of an interim thing to do. I played a couple of shows solo doing [these songs], and I loved it."

Bozulich's recording of Red Headed Stranger is, indeed, a sort of 'night' to Willie Nelson's 'day'. The treatments she's applied to the classic songs have an eerie current pulsing through them, as if they were meant for a dark, blue cabaret scene in a David Lynch film. The deep smokiness of her voice lends a close, whispered-in-your-ear mood to the proceedings, and jazz and ethnic musical styles creep in and out of the mix. "I Couldn't Believe It Was True" breaks in on a thin, whistly Central Asian theme, suggesting the image of a Tuvan horseman riding across the steppe at full gallop. From out of nowhere, the gears change and the entire band leaps into a full-on classic country stomp. Indian raga eases in and out of the picture as well, giving an epic, tectonic feel to the shifting nature of the recording.

"I knew that I wanted to have an open canvas and I went after jazz players and improvisers to record the album," says Bozulich of the album's sound palette. "Everybody on it is totally amazing, established in their own right, you know, bands and albums in their own names. I was just really lucky to get everybody that's on it. They're all heavy-duty improvisers and we play it different every night."

The world-class players on this Red Headed Stranger redux sound perfectly at ease with wherever the songs go. Among them is the amazing Nels Cline, the former Fibbers six-stringer who's been referred to as "the world's most dangerous guitarist" and who often collaborates with Bozulich. Cline's work brings to mind Django Reinhardt at times, Elliot Sharp at others. To say that he's a potent player with a hefty bag of tricks would be an understatement; the shades of color he applies approach infinity.

Willie Nelson himself also makes a few appearances on Bozulich's version of Red Headed Stranger, singing on two tracks and playing guitar on three.

"He heard it on his tour bus and liked it, and he said he'd like to be on it. He heard the rough mixes. Somebody that we know who knows him very well played it for him," explains Bozulich. "I didn't have any idea that he was going to be on it. It was a shock. I went to his studio in Austin, and he was totally cool."

As for the Red Headed Stranger tour, Bozulich and her cohorts aren't just sticking to the material on the album.

"We're playing a lot of Fibbers' stuff, some new stuff, some Ethyl Meatplow stuff, just kinda having a good time. We're doing a lot of improvised portions in the set, just having a blast."

It's great to hear Carla Bozulich singing again, and apparently, this indirect method of re-entry into vocal territory has done her some good.

"I'm having the best time I've ever had playing live. I just feel so grateful, free and happy," she coos. "It's really funny because my songs are so sad and I'm so happy, just beaming most of the time. I think it's probably kind of confusing to the audience, but whatever, you know?"