Outlaw Country: How Willie, Waylon And Others Broke Free

By | April 8, 2019

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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.

Escape From Nashville

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Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings in 1972. Source: (commons.wikimedia.org)

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.