Watching the red Headed Stranger with Willie Nelson
by: Peter Blackstock

On paper, it sounded like a pretty special event: Just outside of Austin, the Willie Nelson film “Red Headed Stranger” would be screened on the grounds of the fictional Old West town that was built for the 1985 production of the movie. And Willie would be there too, answering questions about how it all went down 30-odd years ago.

In person, it was even better. Around 400 folks paid $100 (or more for VIP passes that included a dinner reception) to be there. We talked with two fans who flew in from upstate New York solely for the occasion.

By the time general-admission gates opened at 7:30 p.m., a hot summer afternoon had begun to cool as the sun set over the serene hill-country environs of Luck, Texas, which includes a chapel, a saloon, a headquarters building and other small outposts. More than 70 horses, mostly animal rescues that Willie and his crew have brought to his ranch near Spicewood, roam the grounds along the fringes of the town.

Early arrivers checked out a mini-exhibit of artifacts from the film courtesy of the Wittliff Collections, an archival facility on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos. Scripts and call sheets, photos of Willie with fellow cast members Morgan Fairchild and Katharine Ross, and other documents offered a preview glimpse into how “Red Headed Stranger” got made.

The only thing missing was the Collections’ namesake founder, Bill Wittliff, who wrote and directed the movie. He’d planned to be here, but his sudden death from a heart attack a month ago turned this evening into a memorial event for him, with Nelson and others involved in the film sharing their memories of his influence on their lives.

Wittliff wrote “Red Headed Stranger” with Nelson’s 1975 concept album of the same name as a guide. The album was a turning point in Willie’s career, and it’s probably also the most important record in the history of Austin music. Already an accomplished songwriter, Nelson became a household name when “Red Headed Stranger” topped the country charts.

A quarter-moon gazed upon the ten-cent town of Luck as the opening credits rolled. It’s a bit like peering through the looking glass to watch a movie on the very site where most of it was made. There’s Willie riding in on his horse past the chapel, a landmark that guests explored as they arrived on the grounds. There’s the sheriff’s office, in an outpost that on this night featured Nelson’s new “Willie’s Remedy” CBD-infused coffee on the porch. And hey, we’re sitting almost exactly where they hung Odie Claver, a son of the film’s villain. The post-screening Q&A included Sonny Carl Davis, who played Odie.

Most everything takes place in the tiny Montana town of Driscoll, but Luck and other nearby hill country locations worked well as the backdrop for a story set in the covered-wagon days of the mid-late 1800s. Nelson is riveting as Julian Shay, a preacher who arrives from Philadelphia to reform the town but soon faces his own comeuppance with the Lord.

Andy Langer of Austin City Limits Radio interviewed Willie and other principals for about 20 minutes afterward. Most of Nelson’s comments were brief, but he was a fountain of colorful one-liners.

Asked what it was like watching himself onscreen a few minutes earlier, he replied: “I was thinking, who was that old bastard?” On the Luck chapel: “It’s a real church. We hold service out there, and weddings. I don’t think we’ve had any divorces there yet.” On other activities at his ranch: “There’s a golf course if I feel like swingin’ hard and missing it. There’s plenty of horses to ride, or steal, whatever you want.” On acting: “I never thought of myself as an actor. I react a lot.”

The Q&A also touched upon how “Red Headed Stranger” initially was going to be a much bigger production, with Robert Redford in the lead role — until “he chickened out of it,” Nelson cracked.

With Redford, “Red Headed Stranger” might have gotten a lot more attention than it did in its limited 1986 theatrical run. Much like it was transcendent when Alison Krauss sang Nelson’s ballad “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic two days earlier, Redford’s consummate skill could have made for onscreen magic.

But just as Nelson’s own version of “Angel” at the Picnic a few hours later offered the definitive rendition from the songwriter himself, his performance as the Preacher became the movie’s indelible signature. Mulling it over, Nelson remembered that a colleague on a subsequent film, “Honeysuckle Rose,” once put it this way: “Willie plays himself better than anybody.”

Saturday’s screening was announced as the inaugural event of a new Luck Cinema series. No other movies are currently scheduled, but if this first go-round is any indication, this could become one of the most popular movie outings in Central Texas whenever follow-up films are booked.

MORE FROM WILLIE’S PICNIC: Austin360 A-List photo gallery

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