By Roly Meza
The outlaw country style of music was developed through a rebellion of the established Nashville scene. During the 1960s country music was predominately coming out of Nashville, Tennessee and had been strangled into commercialization. Many critics and fans agree it had become pandering, overproduced, and saturated. The toughness and grit spirit of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and others of the like had faded away. Leading into the 1970s, with the help of rock and roll, the counterculture, and three major outlaw figures, country music evolved into a new sound and sense. It still had the same elements of storytelling at its core, but it added a bit of the rock and roll maverick attitude. Much of it was because the Nashville country scene was dismissing the changing elements happening in music and pigeonholed itself into a purist manner. In the midst of this, a few key characters left the uptight culture of Nashville and decided to hitch on over to Texas. This proved to be an influential and pivotal moment not only in the trajectory of songwriting but for the history of Texas music itself. Here are the three notable figures that helped rebel against the marketed country genre and became the sound of Texas outlaws.
Waylon started playing guitar at the young age of 8 and by 14 he had a band called The Texas Longhorns. He made his way to Nashville like many ambitious songwriters until he finally had his fill of dread and decided to look elsewhere. Dubbed as the Godfather of the outlaw movement, he pioneered the way out of Nashville and into Texas. To put it simply, Waylon was tired of playing “their” game and instead decided to do things his way. A main ingredient in becoming an outlaw but more so in staying authentic to oneself. He preempted the movement with his record titled “Nashville Rebel.” Things didn’t really take off for him until he recorded his 1972 album titled, “Ladies Love Outlaws.” Forever cementing the term and foundation of what it means to make music in one’s own style. He let his hair and beard grow to embody the outlaw image. At the time he was quoted in an interview saying, “They wouldn’t let you do anything. You had to dress a certain way, you had to do everything a certain way… They kept trying to destroy me. I just went about my business and did things my way. You start messing with my music, I get mean.” Waylon went on to record countless albums, many with his longtime friend Willie Nelson. He toured the world till his death in 2002 due to complications of diabetes.
The beloved Austinite that we have all grown to love in Texas was at one point just another singer-songwriter living in Nashville in the early 70s. He had written a few hits for other artists, but things never really took off for young Willie. He decided to head back to Texas. If you’re going to fail, might as well do it somewhere you believe in. To his surprise, he found inspiration in the origins of the genre which included artists such as Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, and The Flatlanders. Austin has always been known as a melting pot of musicians but in this era, people were combining elements of blues, rock and traditional country and also integrated the psychedelic culture as well. After making the rounds and finding success in his home state, Willie became the first country artist to get signed by Atlantic Records. This proved a pivotal point in not just country music but all genres itself. Proving that if one stays true to themselves and believes in their product, the system cannot deny them. Willie Nelson is still alive and performing at the age of 90. You can catch him every July 4th at his iconic picnic where he headlines a stacked concert with the biggest singer-songwriters to date.
According to Kristofferson’s official web bio, “He was an Oxford scholar, a defensive back, a bartender, a Golden Gloves boxer, a gandy dancer, a forest fighter, a road crew member, and an Army Ranger who flew helicopters. He was a peacenik, a revolutionary, an actor, a superstar, a Casanova, and a family man. He was almost a teacher at West Point, though he gave that up to become a Nashville songwriting bum.” If Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were the face and voice of outlaw country music that would make Kristofferson the Shakespeare of it. He developed complex songs and proved to be a hell of a songwriter. However, he was never confident with his voice and many of his songs were sung by other artists. He had no issues with this as he had moved to Nashville and was a janitor at the studio in which Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan recorded. Well into his 30s and nothing really happening he stayed with pen and kept hitting the road. He traveled the country but always called Brownsville Texas his favorite place on Earth. Through the outlaw gravel in his guts and determination, he eventually ended up on stage with his heroes years later. I guess you can say, he was or is your favorite artist. He was even the original actor of the film “A Star Is Born” which is now a remake with the iconic Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. He is still a bit unknown to the average country fan, but one doesn’t have to look far to see his name amid the singer-songwriter forum of accolades. He’s won Grammy’s, a Golden Globe, and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He’s done it all with a humble but rebel attitude.
Although this subgenre movement changed the course of music history it didn’t last very long. The crew of outlaws reached their peak in 1984 when they recorded an album titled “The Highwaymen.” The supergroup’s lineup included Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They sang about the classic tropes of life on the road but by this point, this type of music was becoming outdated in the same way that the Nashville scene was a few decades prior. Waylon Jennings took his hat off to the movement when he recorded his hit song, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” later re-recorded by Jennings’s new band The 357’s and re-named it “Outlaw S***.” This goes to show that even the legends themselves knew the Outlaw ride was slowing down. It was apparent they had their stint and had to evolve themselves if they wanted to continue to have a successful career. They did just that with various collaborations with upcoming artists who grew up on their outlaw music. Willie Nelson went from collaborating with Ray Charles to Snoop Dogg! That’s the thing about being a rebel, an outlaw, a vagabond, at a certain point, you must do whatever the hell you want all over again despite all the fan noise. It’s important in the arts to stick to your guns if you want to be a success to yourself. If there’s anything we learned from these icons is that Texas will always welcome the misfits and support their authenticity. Next time you find yourself under the Texas night sky feeling the outlaw air breathing in you, crack open a lone star and salute the big three!
Written by: Preethi Mangadu