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"My focus is on trying to convey the mood, the atmosphere inside his head, the red-headed stranger,' the preacher that finds his wife and lover, kills them, and goes off on a killing spree. I wanted to convey the maelstrom, the loneliness he is feeling, instrumentally. I want the person listening to be able to breathe in the smell of the desert.
"I want them to hear that sound, the lonely sound of traveling by yourself and being out of your mind."
Carla Bozulich, former leader of post-punk indie favorites Geraldine Fibbers, is talking about her newest release, a reverent, insane, beautiful and chaotic front-to-back remake of country superstar Willie Nelson's career-making 1975 album Red Headed Stranger. Nelson's Stranger, a spare, brooding concept album made up evenly of jaunty instrumentals and gorgeous ballads, is arguably Nelson's signature piece, a personal, almost ancient tale of lost love and murderous rage. The original is so singularly Willie that covering the album front to back might seem a poor choice. But in the age of po-mo, Bozulich and musical crew -- including the "world's most dangerous guitarist" Nels Cline -- prove that musical killing sprees aren't the exclusive territory of red-headed musicians.
Bozulich's version of Stranger stretches the original's 33 minutes to nearly an hour. It morphs the instrumental pieces into filmic noise, expanding on jazz themes present in the original while keeping most of the ballads fairly straight.
This is a minimalist country album filtered through an experimental free-jazz sieve, with a healthy dose of sound manipulation tossed in with the remainders. Bozulich's husky voice stands in stark contrast to Willie's high-pitch vibrato. The playing takes on a darker hue; it features strange time signatures and unusual keys, while Bozulich's voice and Cline's mercurial, metallic playing coalesce around the stranger's fever dream.
Bozulich has been a fan of classic country for a long time -- her early work with the Geraldine Fibbers often featured well-placed country covers. A 1997 album of Fibbers outtakes and rarities, What Part of "Get Thee Gone" Don't You Understand?, features a version of Red Headed Stranger's "Hands on the Wheel," as well as a monstrous version of Bobbie Gentry's "Fancy" that preceded Reba McEntire's hit cover of it.
When Bozulich first heard Stranger in 1992, she knew it was a special album, and she played cuts live for years before she finally found another outlet to explore the record.
"I got sick of my voice for a while after the Fibbers stopped touring in December '97," she says. "In '98 and '99 I didn't sing that much. I did mostly improvised instrumental music. Later, I wanted to start singing again but I had sort of gotten out of the habit of it and I needed something to do trying to transition back into singing that didn't have the pressure of writing a bunch of songs.
"At first I just started [playing the album live] not really as a concept to make an album but as a way to get myself back into the swing of singing," Bozulich continues. "I got hooked into the story, and the ballads on the album are so beautiful."
Bozulich toured for a few weeks in 2002 playing the album in running order. As soon as her band returned home, they went into the studio and committed a quick, down-and-dirty live recording to tape.
"We recorded it live in one day," she says. "We did overdubs the next day. Those guys went home, and I did some vocal overdubs and there was a bass overdub . . . and that was it. Until we went to Austin."
Yes, to that Austin, or, more correctly, to Pedernales, Texas. Or, even more specifically, Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch.
"A friend of ours was also a friend of Willie's, and he had an opportunity to play him the roughs on Willie's tour bus," Bozulich says. "Willie was into it and he said he would like to do something on it. It was a shock."
Bozulich was put in touch with Willie's people at his home studio and didn't hear anything for a while. "His studio manager called me the day before and said can you be here tomorrow at 10 a.m.," she recounts. "I was in L.A. . . . and I said, Yeah,' and I got there at 10 a.m. It took a while for him to come in from the golf course."
Nelson ended up dueting with Bozulich on two of his old songs, "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?" and "Hands on the Wheel." He also lent his unmistakable staccato guitar to album opener "Time of the Preacher" to excellent effect. The result is a mixed bag. His guitar works perfectly on the opening track, and the vocals on "Wheel" are pleasant enough, but Nelson and Bozulich's diverging voices sound slightly discordant on "Can I Sleep in Your Arms?"
Bozulich still verbally blushes about the encounter. She came away with one major regret, however.
"I changed the key and he ended up singing a harmony [on "Arms"]. I was horrified, because I thought we were going to sing live and I would sing the harmony," says Bozulich of the session. "I wouldn't want Willie Nelson to sing a harmony, I would want him to sing the lead out of respect. . . . The way it sounds, it doesn't sound like he's doing the harmony and she's doing the melody . . ."
When it came time for the creator to grade his admirer's papers, it seems that the inevitable "how'd I do, Willie?" conversation was brief.
"He said it was really interesting stuff and said, Who's that lap steel player?' I said, That's Nels Cline,' and he said, He's far out,'" says Bozulich.
So with a permanent endorsement from Nelson, Carla returned home and indulged in the business part of the music business -- trying to contextualize a heartfelt avant-garde recording of a classic country album from 1975.
Think hard -- we sure did. How many front-to-back covers of well-known albums by lesser-known artists can you name? Camper Van Beethoven blasted through Fleetwood Mac's 1979 opus Tusk on a whim during downtime while recording their Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. The Easy Dub All Stars, a hodgepodge of longtime reggae players assembled by indie label Easy Dub, covered The Dark Side of the Moon as Dub Side of the Moon.
But it is safe to say the whole-album cover racket is rarely tapped. What, then, inspired Bozulich, a very capable musician with an unconventional bent, to go ahead and cover Red Headed Stranger? Wasn't she even a little intimidated to take on such a famous recording?
"People ask me that a lot, and I am sure the right answer is yes," Bozulich says. "But I just didn't think about it at the time. I was just really compelled to do it. It felt really natural, so I did it. I guess if I would have thought about that and gotten all freaked out about it, I wouldn't have done it, but it didn't even occur to me. I just did it."