Seven Spanish Angels: Romance, Violence and Absolution in the West

Willie Nelson and Ray Charles (screencap of a live performance of "Seven Spanish Angels")

Willie Nelson and Ray Charles (screencap of a live performance of “Seven Spanish Angels”)

“Seven Spanish Angels”

When I pick up the guitar to sing, I like to launch into the long ballads. The melody sinks in to me through repetition. The lyrics, many refined over time by unknown self-appointed editors, flow out. If I’m lucky, I discover something new inside them. I let the “movie” play. Something happens in the singing – releasing the story – that doesn’t happen in listening alone.

The movie analogy comes to me from Richard Thompson, who talks about needing a song like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” to play out afresh in his mind’s eye each time he performs it. I do that playing that song, too. Old songs like “Fair Ellender,” “Barbara Allen,” and “Peggy-O” easily lend themselves to it.

I hadn’t tried to play “Seven Spanish Angels” until starting to write this post. I became curious about the song after my last post, wanting to explore other areas where mainstream country music “permitted” killing. In addition, I wanted to explore country’s diversity of voices, and how this song might resonate with listeners. Country music often resembles folk balladry, even in an era when “hit factories” deliver songs as products to consumers, because it’s a storytelling genre.

“Seven Spanish Angels” has that cinematic quality Thompson describes, although it’s decidedly a short film. Two verses tell the story. The rest plays out in the listener’s imagination. I can’t find a synopsis of this song that doesn’t inject some interpretation or inference into its story. You would be hard-pressed to find a synopsis that tells the tale more briefly than the song. In today’s post, we’ll see how the song came to be, and figure out a little of why and how it works.

Lyrics

Ray Charles and friends

When Ray Charles announced he was planning an album of country duets, Nashville’s Music Row lined up. According to Daniel Cooper’s liner notes of Ray Charles: The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986, songwriters Troy Seals and Eddie Setser pitched “Seven Spanish Angels” to Willie Nelson to propose for Charles’s project. (Cooper’s account, therefore, disagrees with Nelson’s explanation in the clip above.)

Friendship became a hit, staying on the country album charts for 70 weeks. “Seven Spanish Angels” became a #1 single on the country charts. It was Charles’s first and last #1 country single, and his penultimate #1 single in any genre. Its success led to his nomination for the Country Music Association’s 1985 Horizon Award, recognizing the most improved artist in the past year. The band Sawyer Brown beat Charles out for the honor. They probably needed it more. The award is now called “New Artist of the Year.” Charles had been recording country music for over two decades by that point, beginning with the seminal Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music in 1962.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, who reviewed Friendship for allmusic.com, finds that, for all its success, the album hasn’t aged very well. Charles’s duet with Nelson on “Seven Spanish Angels,” he argues, is dull and growing duller with time. The song has legs, though, whatever doubts you might hold about Charles and Nelson’s recording. When Nelson received the Gershwin Award for Popular Song in 2015, part of the tribute concert included a duet by Jamey Johnson and Alison Krauss:

Beyond this, “Seven Spanish Angels” has over 85 versions available on Spotify. Rolling Stone listed it as the 24th Saddest Country Song of All-Time in one of their characteristically scientific and humble lists. It also has extraordinary international appeal, with recordings in Czech, as well as English-language recordings by artists from Ireland, Denmark, Canada, South Africa, Norway, and others. You can explore some of these in the playlist at the end of this post.

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