During SXSW, as Willie Nelson performed at the Luck Family Reunion on the property he built for the filming of Red Headed Stranger, a schoolteacher in Portland, Oregon set up shop in a recording studio to record her own concept album of songs inspired by the landmark album. It’s called Raven Haired Vixen.
More than forty years ago, Willie Nelson conceptualized a whole album inspired by a song he once played as a disc jockey called “Tale of The Red Headed Stranger.” The record traced the life and crimes of a fugitive who kills his wife and her lover but lives into old age to find redemption.
While she spent days and nights rocking her infant son, Carra Stassney thought a lot about Red Headed Stranger. The idea of re-imagining the album with a female character took shape. Stassney asked herself a question: What would make a female character act with such impulsiveness and violence? Then a vision came of a mother standing over her baby’s empty crib waking up in shock and anger that her child had been stolen in the night.
“I cannot give you a full summary because that would spoil the plot,” she told me when I asked about the larger narrative. “But I will say that my character’s child was stolen by his ‘no-good-daddy’ and new girlfriend. The mother goes after them and does whatever she has to to be reunited with her child.”
She chose to retain the same backdrop as Nelson used. It takes place in Blue Rock Montana, the turn of the century fictional town created by Edith Lindeman for the song “Tale of a Red Headed Stranger.” Carra was in a band called Copper and Coal and when she became pregnant, her drummer started calling her Mamma Coal. When she got the idea for an album about a mother turned outlaw, she thought it fit perfectly.
By day, she teaches English and Social Studies at an award-winning middle school. This is her ninth year. She’s played some of the songs to her class but admits it can be hard for students to understand that their teacher might have a life and creative world of her own.
And the record, which she is targeting for a summer release, is not light material. In a photo for the project, the singer can be seen holding her son Dean while aiming a Ruger 22 Caliber Single six she borrowed from a friend whose grandfather gave it as a gift when she was a teen. The singer points out that as in Red Headed Stranger, the stories examine what happens when someone you love is taken away, resulting in a murderous rage.
“There are the same number of deaths in our stories and both of our characters are difficult to label as heroes or villains,” she says of the connection to Red Headed Stranger, adding that it’s only later that the character comes to terms with it. “While their emotions are easy to understand, their actions are hard to accept.”
To listen to some of the songs and hear Mamma Coal talk about the album, visit her website: www.mammacoal.com