Outlaw Country: How Willie, Waylon And Others Broke Free

By Jacob Shelton
Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings enjoy a drink together in New York in 1978. Source: (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 a 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.