During the tumultuous decade of the 1960’s, the country music industry fought back against the trends in popular music. In direct response to the free-wheeling attitude of rock and roll, country music executives created a format that was guaranteed to please the country-faithful. The same studio musicians accompanied the major stars on many of the hits of the period. Studio musicians ensured a quality recording because they had an intimate understanding of how the producers operated. This studio system created a situation where the actual touring bands were left out of the recording process in favor of studio musicians. During the next decade, a core group of four singer-songwriters made their break from the Nashville establishment. They turned the genre on its head. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson initiated this country revolution. The group would inaugurate the Outlaw Country sound that still influences many artists today. While influenced by the roots of country, folk and cowboy music, they also reached out and touched a number of other musical genres such as southern rock and mainstream rock. They left their musical mark on the American music industry and are still influencing singers and songwriters today. These performers lived, loved, and sang hard. Not only as a style of music, but as a way of life, Outlaw Country touched a chord with those looking for a more authentic form of entertainment and raises an important question: Just what is authentic country music?
The origins of country music are deeply rooted in the rural South, after World War II. Country music acted as a mirror to the day-to-day struggles and fears of the common Southerner. It also functioned as an escape for those same people, making allusions to fantasies such as the
Old West or the old country home that never was. The mythology of America’s rural foundation gave country music an appeal that crossed the Mississippi River and the Mason-Dixon Line. As early as 1953, the question of authenticity became prevalent. In an interview published by Billboard Magazine during that era, seven out of nine producers interviewed pointed to authenticity as a deciding factor in picking a new singer or song. The other two producers pointed to originality. Despite the need for authenticity, the allure of money began to play a more important part in the decision-making process. By the end of that decade, “Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars” had become the fashion of the genre. Instead of authentic performances, audiences were fed a steady diet of producer-controlled, studio-driven, glossy productions.
Today, the moniker of Outlaw has become a coveted status for many new country stars. In recent years, the CMT network has started pursuing the lovers of Outlaw Country with a concert series entitled The New Outlaws. This series makes the connection between the young bloods of country and the old guard of Outlaw Country. The series has featured performers such as Toby Keith, Shooter Jennings, Kid Rock, Gretchen Wilson, and Montgomery Gentry. These young stars are mixed with their Outlaw idols for the evening. Jessi Colter, Hank Williams Jr., Tanya Tucker, David Allen Coe, Merle Haggard, and Billy Joe Shaver are some of the classic stars that have made recent appearances on the series. Is this new generation an authentic
representation of not only Outlaw Country but of country music in general? In an article for CMT.com, former editorial director, Chet Flippo, asserted that many of these new artists, “try to talk and look Outlaw, as if it were a costume you could buy at the Halloween store.” While this comment pays tribute to the past and attempts to bridge the gap with the present, it still highlights the changes that have occurred in the Outlaw community. In a 2010 interview, Merle Haggard explained what he sees as the problem with the new generation. He stated that,
“Outlaw country artists are people like Willie Nelson who write music their way and not because of some special grooming. Johnny Cash wasn’t made in a grooming school and the next Johnny Cash won’t be found that way. The writers now pick about two guys at a time and [work with them] and come back with a song at five that evening. That is the way they like to see [country stars made]. Sometimes it works. But I don’t think they found Elvis Presley that way and I don’t think Hank Williams was found that way. Hank didn’t do it that way at all.”
The characteristics of Outlaw Country that made it authentic have now become a commercial concept instead of a lifestyle. So while the group of performers that originated the genre actually reached back into the past of country and created a more authentic sound, the appeal of money has turned its legacy into just another form of overproduced, radio-friendly music.
To understand Outlaw Country, one must first understand the men who originated the genre. Waylon Jennings got his start in the early days of rock and roll. In 1959, Jennings, Buddy Holly’s bass player, experienced what could be considered the most tragic and pivotal moment in American music. On February 3, 1959, he gave up his seat on a plane to Fargo North Dakota. That night, the trio of Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Richie Valens died when their plain iced up and crashed not long after takeoff. The final exchange between Buddy
Holly and Jennings went something along these lines, “I hope your damn bus freezes up,” Holly kidded Jennings. “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” was Jennings’ reply. It leaves one to wonder, did this event begin his Jennings’ efforts to live life to the extreme? He became notorious for his lust for life. Hard living and hard loving became the hallmarks of not only his life, but also his music. He took these influences and crafted a stripped down, rock-tinged version of country music. Because of his rock-influenced sound, many of his critics leveled claims that this new sound could not be country. In typical Jennings style, he responded,
“I’m not trying to change anything. I’m just trying to sing my kind of music. So people say it’s not country. Some people say I’m trying to be a pop singer. If I’d wanted to cut a pop record, I could have recorded a Buddy Holly song anytime in the past five years and had a pop hit, but I didn’t. I guess if I’m not country and I’m not a Mongolian aviator, I’m just singing Waylon’s music.
There are some people who say I use too heavy of a beat and too many instruments…but if instruments and beats made our music then we’d be in trouble anyway. The soul of the music is in the singer and I don’t believe anybody can really sing country as well as the old boy who’s lived it. Country music is like black man’s blues. They are only a beat apart. It’s the same man, singing the same song, about the same problems, and his loves, his losses, the good and the bad times.”
In 1976, Jennings, along with Jessi Colter and Willie Nelson, gave this new style of country music its name, Outlaw Country. The album, Wanted! The Outlaws, became the first country album to sell in excess of one million copies. The album, while groundbreaking in many aspects, held to traditional country motifs. Jennings pulled together threads of hard living, hard loving, and confessional song writing to set himself apart from the establishment.
Waylon Jennings’ creative side kick during the creation of The Outlaws had been, Willie Nelson. Nelson had been a songwriter in the country music industry for many years before breaking away. Nelson can best be described as a vocal stylist and a master song writer. He penned such classics as “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” He spent most of his early years in Nashville writing hits for the established performers, but when recording his own albums, Nelson clashed with producers who tried to mold him into their ideal. His offbeat phrasing and roadhouse style of performance did not fit well in the Nashville studio system. At this point, Nelson decided to move to Austin, Texas. Falling in with the likes of Jennings and Kristofferson solidified his reputation in Nashville as an Outlaw. Once the restrictions were removed, Nelson’s recording carrier took off. A string of hit albums followed with Shotgun Willie, (1973) Phases and Stages, (1974) and Red Headed Stranger, (1975) which included his first number one hit, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The song achieved not only country music acclaim, but had a tremendous amount of cross-over success. The song earned Nelson his first Gammy for Best Country Vocal Performance in 1975.
As the senior member of the group, Johnny Cash is one of the few country artists who has received any scholarly examination. Most contend that country music after the 1940s is simply “commercialized Folk Music.” To the contrary, Cash consistently drew from the well of music that had gone before. Folk, country, prison, and blues music all influenced his repertory on stage. The newer songs that started to come out of Nashville during this period reflected the changes in the country as a whole. The rural audience quickly became more urbanized. The themes of many new songs reflected the loss of their rural way of life, but Cash continued to utilize the traditional material, as one of the few artists that composed and recorded virtually all of his own songs. Originally part of the group that set Sun Records on the road to rock and roll history, Cash moved to Columbia Records in 1958. This led him to concentrate on traditional music. During this, he recorded Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, which includes the, “I Got Stripes.” This song is a reworked southern chain gang song. The album sealed his reputation as an Outlaw. In an interview with 60 Minutes he explained that, “I’ve never been convicted of a felony. I did gain a certain notoriety back in the early ’60s, for about seven years actually, when I’d find myself in a county or city jail.” Even though his prison record was mostly a myth, many attribute his ability to sing songs like “Folsom Prison” to this dark past. Cash re-enforced this idea with his Man in Black persona. He became known for wearing black from head to toe while on stage. Also during this period, Cash recorded approximately ninety blues songs, along with his ballads and joyful heart songs. Cash did not show any outward aversion to the new singer-songwriters who were influenced by the rock or protest songs of the 1960s. Always careful to choose songs that fit his style, Cash felt comfortable recording Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Despite his reluctance to record newer songs, he did give these artists a show case on his television variety show. Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Bob Dylan gave some of the most notable performances on the show, and some even credit Dylan’s recording of Blonde on Blonde, in Nashville, as being a seminal moment for the creation of Outlaw Country. Also, on several occasions, Cash hosted popular rock performers at his home. At one of these events, Graham Nash first performed “Marrakesh Express;” Joni Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now;” Bob Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay;” Michelle Silverstein sang “Boy Named Sue;” and Kris Kristofferson sang “Me and Bobby McGee.” It is this ability to promote other genres, while being faithful to his own repertoire, which makes Cash one of the foremost members of the Outlaw Country movement.
The final member of this Outlaw Quartet could be considered the most unlikely. A self-described “songwriting bum,” Kris Kristofferson is one of the most diverse talents of the four. Before joining the ranks of the Outlaw elite, he played college football, fought in the Golden Gloves, and achieved the status of a Rhodes Scholar. Also, Kristofferson had a very promising military career as an officer and a helicopter pilot. He gave all of this up to follow his dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. Just as with the other members of the Outlaw community, his style borrowed from the past while mingling elements of the popular music of the time. He wrote several hits that are considered classics in any genre of music. Some of these hits include “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “For the Good Times.” “Me and Bobby McGee” became his most noticeable cross-over success. The song achieved an iconic status in the rock scene of the 70’s when Janis Joplin recorded it. His songs are a poetic explorations of emotional truth and feeling. He follows the classic country tradition of singing about the struggles of everyday life. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is an excellent example of this ability. The imagery of waking up with a hangover, children playing “kick the can” in the street, and the smell of frying chicken add nuance to the emotions of being lonely. While his style fit well with more modern forms of popular music, he still managed to keep a connection to a more authentic country sound.
The interesting aspect of these four artists’ careers came in 1985 when they joined forces to create the country super group, The Highwaymen. The first single, “Highwayman,” became a huge chart and financial success. The song peaked at number1on the country charts, and sparked two more installments for the group. The artists who sought to push back against the Nashville establishment had become the establishment. Despite the fact that the songs still focused on the traditional country subjects of the Old West, love, life, death and patriotism, it had become an over-produced, money-driven venture. Sadly, with the death of Waylon Jennings and the decline in sales of the last album, the group came to an abrupt end in 2002.
In the end, the Outlaw movement tapped into the roots of authentic country music. While the instrumentation and vocal styles may have changed, the subject matter of everyday life, the old home town, and the Old West still dominated their writing. Even though the definition of authenticity in country music seems to be in a constant state of flux, these themes still form the basis of the genre. These themes go all the way back to the earliest recordings of Fiddlin’ John Carson in Atlanta, and the Carter Family during the Bristol Sessions in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Likewise, most artists hold up Hank Williams as the embodiment of all that is authentic country. Hank lived hard and sang hard. He made his career by writing his own songs and being his own man. This aspect of his style not only cost him his membership in the Opry, but also cut short his life. By applying these constants as the standards for authentic country, the vanguard of Outlaw Country made a valiant attempt to revive them. In the 1970’s, Outlaw Country, may have looked and sounded different from the early founding fathers of country, but at its core, it still held to the main attributes of authentic country music. The one factor that continually threatens the artist’s ability to maintain an air of authenticity is economics. Money, the driving factor behind the studio system of the 1960s, would eventually spell the end of the first generation of the Outlaw movement. Likewise, money could be responsible for Outlaw’s resurgence.
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