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Willie Nelson
Outlaw country was a significant trend in country music during the late 1960s and the 1970s (and even into the 1980s in some cases), commonly referred to as The Outlaw Movement (both by fans and by people in the music industry) or simply Outlaw music. The focus of the movement has been on self-declared "outlaws", such as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe and his Eli Radish Band, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams Jr., and Billy Joe Shaver. The reason for the movement has been attributed to a reaction to the Nashville sound, developed by record producers like Chet Atkins who softened the raw honky tonk sound that was predominant in the music of performers like Jimmie Rodgers, and his successors such as Hank Williams, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. According to Aaron Fox (2004, p. 51) "the fundamental opposition between law-and-order authoritarianism and the image of 'outlaw' authenticity... has structured country's discourse of masculinity since the days of Jimmie Rodgers."

Seeds of change

The roots of the outlaw movement can be traced to the 1950s. A major influence on the outlaw movement was Elvis Presley's bluesy covers of country standards. However, an even greater transition occurred after Waylon Jennings was able to secure his own recording rights, and began the trend of bucking the "Nashville Sound."

The 1960s was a decade of enormous change and the change was reflected in the revolution in the music of the time. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and many who followed in their wake cast off the traditional role of the recording artist. They wrote their own material, they had creative input to their albums, they refused to conform to what society required of its youth. At the same time, country music was declining into a formulaic genre that appeared to offer the establishment what it wanted with artists such as Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton making the kind of music that was anathema to the growing counter culture. While Nashvillemarker continued to be the focus of country music, other centers included Lubbockmarker, Tulsamarker and Austinmarker.

The rise of the outlaws

The term "outlaw country" is derived from the song "Ladies Love Outlaws" written by Lee Clayton and sung by Waylon Jennings on the 1972 album of the same name. It became associated with singers who grew their hair long, wore denim and leather and looked like hippies in contrast to the clean cut country singers in Nudie suits that were pushing the Nashville sound. The success of these singers did much to restore the rawness and life force to country music. The songs were about drinking, drugs, hard working men and honky tonk heroes. The music was more like rock and roll and there were no strings in the background.

Waylon, Willie and friends

L-R Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings at Willie's 1972 4th of July Picnic.
Although Jennings and Nelson are regarded as the stereotypical outlaws, there were several other writers and performers who provided the material that infused the movement with the outlaw spirit. Some people have noted that Jennings and Nelson were Nashville veterans whose careers were revived by the movement and that they drew on the energy that was being generated in their home state of Texas to spearhead the attack on the Nashville producers. Jennings, in particular, forced his record company to let him produce his own albums. In 1973 he produced Lonesome, On'ry and Mean. The theme song was written by Steve Young, a songwriter and performer who never made it in the mainstream, but whose songs helped to create the outlaw style. The follow up album for Jennings was Honky Tonk Heroes and the songwriting hero was Texan Billy Joe Shaver. Like Steve Young, Shaver never made it big, but his 1973 album Old Five and Dimers Like Me is considered a country classic in the outlaw genre.

Willie Nelson's career as a songwriter in Nashville peaked in the late 1960s. His "Crazy" was a massive hit for Patsy Cline, but as a singer, he was getting nowhere. He left Nashville in 1971 to return to Texas. The musicians he met in Austin had been developing the folk and rock influenced country music that grew into the outlaw genre. Performing and associating with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey and Billy Joe Shaver helped shape his future career. At the same time as Nelson was reinventing himself, other significant influencers were writing and playing in Austin and Lubbock. Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore formed The Flatlanders, a group that never sold huge numbers of albums, but continues to perform. The three founders have each made a significant contribution to the development of the outlaw genre.

Other Texans, like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Guy Clark, have developed the outlaw ethos through their songs and their lifestyles.

Women outlaws

Although Outlaw country was mainly ruled by the domain of men, there were some women that pursued musical careers in Country Music that considered themselves "Outlaws" as well. There are really only two women that became major outlaw stars in country music: Jessi Colter and Sammi Smith.

Jessi Colter was the wife of the Outlaw pioneer Waylon Jennings. She married Jennings in 1968. In the mid-70s, she pursued a solo career, and immediately achieved Outlaw status after she scored a #1 country hit, that also reached #4 on the pop charts, titled "I'm Not Lisa", which was penned by Colter herself. Her 1975 album I'm Jessi Colter showed more of Colter's Outlaw side showing Colter in a saloon-like setting, resting her arm on a piano. Colter officially gained full-on Outlaw status when she was featured on the compilation album, along with her husband, called Wanted! The Outlaws. The album was a huge commercial and critical success and won many awards.

Besides Jessi Colter, there was one other woman who achieved the Outlaw success of her male counterparts: Sammi Smith, a singer from Californiamarker. Smith was unafraid to sing songs that were considered too "risky" or spoke of the realities of the modern life. Her voice was husky from singing in smoky bars before she achieved fame. Smith made it big in 1971, when she recorded the sexy come-on song by Kris Kristofferson titled "Help Me Make It Through the Night." The song brought Smith to the #1 spot on the country charts, and even made her a crossover star, at #8 on the pop charts. The song won her a Grammy award in 1972 for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. She officially became an Outlaw when she moved down to Texasmarker and became fast friends with Willie Nelson. She regularly attended his Fourth of July picnics every year.

Texas Country

Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs.
Newer artists, such as Robert Earl Keen Jr., Hank Williams III, Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, Kevin Fowler, Shooter Jennings, Wade Bowen, Jimmy Aldridge, and groups such as Randy Rogers Band, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, and Eli Young Band, who grew up during the original outlaw movement, have recently been re-energizing the Outlaw Movement and keeping with the "outlaw spirit". Also, older artists such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Billy Joe Shaver, and David Allan Coe have also been contributing to the resurgence of the outlaw sound. Because many of these artists are native Texans or call Texas their home, it is often referred to as Texas Country. Robert Earl Keen, Pat Green, and Cory Morrow are most notably credited with bringing Texas Country out of the honky tonks and onto college campuses. Keen, a graduate of Texas A&M Universitymarker, where he and fellow songwritter Lyle Lovett were roommates, has been performing on college campuses since the late 80's. Along with Green's shows in the late 90's, these artists began to increase with incredible popularity on college campuses in Texas and Oklahoma including Texas Techmarker, (Green's Alma Mater), Texas A&M, Oklahoma State Universitymarker (home of the red dirt music scene) and the University of Texasmarker. Their popularity gave more exposure to other Texas Country artists like Cory Morrow, Roger Creager, and Kevin Fowler and to groups like Cooder Graw.

In 1998, maverick record executive Rick Smith, of Fort Worthmarker, launched the "Live at Billy_Bob'smarker Texas" series of recordings, which have featured legends such as Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe and popular Texas Country artists like Pat Green, Jack Ingram, Cory Morrow, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Jason Boland & the Stragglers, Cooder Graw, the Randy Rogers Band and Kevin Fowler. These recordings, along with a fertile musical climate in Texas, have sparked a resurgence in the rough and tumble anti-Nashville sentiment of country music and solidified Billy Bob's Texas, "The World's Largest Honky Tonk", as the home for this movement .

Other Texas based artists, such as Eleven Hundred Springs, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Dale Watson, Stoney LaRue and Hayes Carll continue the tradition of their Outlaw Country forebearers in Texas and have helped usher in the movement in honkytonks across the U.S.

Artists associated with outlaw country

Other artists, such as Hank Williams Jr, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare Jr., the Bottle Rockets, Charlie Daniels, Miss Derringer and Jamey Johnson.

See also

Further reading

  • Country Music. The Rough Guide,

    Kurt Wolff, Rough Guides, 2000, ISBN 1-85828-534-8
  • The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,

    Jan Reid, University of Texas Press; New edition, 2004, ISBN 0-292-70197-7


  • Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate,

    Washburne, Christopher J. and Derno, Maiken (eds.), 2004, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-94366-3.
    • Fox, Aaron A. "White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as 'Bad' Music"

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