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Outlaw Country: How Willie, Waylon And Others Broke Free

Music | April 11, 2019

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings enjoy a drink together in New York in 1978 (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Today, they don't seem like outlaws: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Jr., David Allan Coe, Tompall Glaser, Johnny Paycheck and numerous others are simply considered country legends. But "outlaw country," as their brand of music came to be known, was once a rebellious and controversial thing. Country music, as a genre, was managed by committee in the '60s, with record label brass deciding what sound was appealing, handing out assignments to artists, and attempting to dictate their appearance and public image. 

The so-called "Nashville sound," with its string arrangements and background singers, had been instituted in the late '50s to differentiate and protect country music from the commercial threat of rock 'n roll, but for many artists it was stifling. They envied their rock 'n roll peers, who could write and record their own music with a degree of creative control. And what's more, some rock musicians were making music that sounded a lot more like the country than the popular country acts did -- Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were peppering their albums in the '60s with country music that sounded more authentic to the genre's roots than what the future outlaws were hearing from Nashville.

Escape From Nashville

Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in 1972. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The situation had to change, and a movement was born, organically. Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard were respected country hitmakers who'd always been rebellious. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were successful songwriters -- for other artists -- who'd made little headway with their own recordings. Waylon Jennings was a misfit, with rockabilly heritage (he'd been in Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets) and folk tendencies. Hank Jr. was a talented musician in his own right who'd always been accused of impersonating his late father -- a career track that would make a record label money but was artistically unsatisfying. A host of others, including David Allan Coe, Townes Van Zandt, Charlie Daniels, Guy Clark, and Billy Joe Shaver, were just never going to fit in to mainstream country -- long-haired, loud and ornery, their kindred spirits were the freewheeling rock stars of the day, not the suit-and-tied acts favored by the Grand Ole Opry.

From the late ‘60s through the ‘70s, outlaw country artists sang about drinking, drugs, and life on the road. Their lives made for enthralling outlaw music and it inspired artists of all stripes to follow their own path. 


The Main Offenders

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It’s one thing to refer to yourself as an “outlaw,” but the musicians who made up this country music movement each broke away from the Nashville country establishment in their own way. The artists that follow aren’t the be all and end all of outlaw country, but if you’re looking for an introduction to the genre this is a good place to start:

  • Johnny Cash
  • Merle Haggard
  • Waylon Jennings
  • Willie Nelson
  • Bobby Bare
  • Jessi Colter
  • David Allan Coe
  • Hank Williams, Jr.
  • Kris Kristofferson
  • Billy Joe Shaver
  • Ray Wylie Hubbard
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • Leon Russell
  • Townes Van Zandt
  • Jerry Jeff Walker
  • Charlie Daniels

Outlaw Country Is A State Of Mind

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The early outlaw country musicians were united by sentiment, not style. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger isn’t aesthetically similar to the work of Johnny Cash, and neither of these artists sound like Merle Haggard but if there’s one focal point in their musicianship it’s the Western swing bands of the 1930s and 1940s. Artists like Bob Wills and Hank Williams were hard living musicians who toured constantly and with their own bands - which has a lot more to do with the outlaw label than the artist’s lifestyle.

In the late ‘60s, when Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were trying to break out of the pack in Nashville they each walked away from the country establishment so they could work with whom they wanted to, as well as own their recordings. Once artists were working for themselves there was a greater distance in style and sound, but a similarity in their way of thinking.

It’s unclear who first started using the term “outlaw,” but the genre was solidified in 1976 with the release of Wanted! The Outlaws a compilation featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, it was the first country album to sell a million records. 

They Brought A Rock Look To A Country Sound

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In spite of its rampant individualism, there’s a particular look that’s pervasive throughout the main players of this genre. As guys like Willie and Waylon separated themselves from the Nashville system they grew their hair long and shed the clean-cut look of their peers. Willie started wearing tennis shoes and t-shirts to his performances, while singers like David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings took their fashion cues from rock stars and bikers. And everyone seemed to have learned from Johnny Cash before them -- black was always in style. 

Willie Nelson Went On The Run And Found Outlaw Country Along The Way

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Prior to his legacy as the cherubic god of puff, puff, pass, Willie Nelson was a Texas-born, Nashville based songwriter who wrote hits for artists like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison, but never managed to crack Nashville as a solo artist. In 1972 he decided to retire from music and move to Austin.

Even though he laid down his guitar, the pull of sweet lady country was too much for Nelson, and after performing at the Dripping Springs Reunion he put a backing band together and recorded Shotgun Willie in 1973. While the album didn’t sell well, it inspired Nelson to keep recording, and a year later he released Phases and Stages, a concept album about the end of a relationship.

In 1975 Columbia Records put out Nelson’s masterwork Red Headed Stranger. This outlaw country album reached number one on the Billboard country charts and number 28 in a 43 week run in the overall charts. It’s safe to say that becoming an outlaw changed Nelson’s life. 

Johnny Cash, The Godfather Of Outlaw Country

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Johnny Cash is bigger than country music. His influence can be found in everything from singer-songwriters of the ‘70s to baritone fronted indie rock band The National. While the sound of Cash changed throughout his career, the two things that stayed the same were his songwriting and his penchant for wearing black.

Even when Cash was playing songs with a full Nashville country orchestra behind him, the songs were about taking speed, drinking, and general self-destruction. His music may not have played a role in the sound of outlaw country, but his anti-establishment ethos is something that his outlaw acolytes picked up on from day one. 

Waylon Jennings Lived And Breathed The Outlaw Lifestyle

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You can’t talk about outlaw country without mentioning Waylon Jennings. Well, you could, but you’d be willfully ignoring one of the most important figures in the genre. After the release of Ladies Love Outlaws in 1972 Jennings was laid up in the hospital with hepatitis. He was finished with the music industry, but after his new manager, Neil Reshen renegotiated the singer’s contract to give him more money and artistic control he was able to fully realize his vision.

Jennings moved to Texas in 1973 and recorded Lonesome, On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes, his first two albums to be both critically and commercially successful. At the height of outlaw country, Jennings questioned his fellow artist’s choice to live a life of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll in the name of a genre in “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” which only made him more of a hero. Jennings passed away in 2002 from diabetic complications.

Singing About The Scene Was The Beginning Of The End

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The lifestyle of an outlaw is unsustainable at best. If the late nights and long drives didn’t kill many of genre’s artists in the ‘70s, the drinking and drugs did. Even those singers and songwriters who survived the ‘70s intact felt the death knell of the outlaw classification. When you get big enough, the system can no longer ignore you. The outlaws who had been an irritant to Nashville and the country music establishment ended up reaping praise and winning credit from the industry they'd fled.

Singer-songwriter Steve Earle says that it wasn’t the addiction that killed outlaw country, it was the self-mythologizing. He told Pitchfork

The worst of all those songs David Allan Coe wrote was ‘Willie, Waylon, and Me.’ I really hate it… I remember reading in Country Music magazine, I think it was [the art and music critic] Dave Hickey who wrote about being on an airplane and sitting next to this roughneck coming in from an offshore rig. They got to talking, and he asked Dave what he did. He said, ‘I write about country music.’ That guy says, ‘Those country singers, they used to sing about us. Now all they do is sing about each other.’

Outlaw Country Was Necessary For Country To Survive

Source: Amazon.com

But their excesses can be forgiven -- outlaw country was a necessary movement to keep country relevant and bring it back to its roots as a music of the people, rather than a product mixed up in a Nashville test tube. The spirit of outlaw music is now something that's handed down through the generations -- in the 1980s, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and others accepted the challenge of keeping country music authentic.

Finally, outlaw country brought us together as lovers of music. It's a genre that really came to exist as a rejection of genre -- these artists didn't fully buy into Nashville's recipe for country but they didn't want to let go of their accents and their twang. While the rock genre was edging toward country with acts like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, the outlaws were bridging that gap from the other side. Call it outlaw country, country rock, southern rock -- who cares? It was what listeners wanted to hear, and it still sounds as good today as it did decades ago.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | David Allan Coe | Hank Williams Jr. | Johnny Cash | Kris Kristofferson | Merle Haggard | Waylon Jennings | Where Are They Now | Willie Nelson | Johnny Paycheck

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.