Once And For All, What Makes an Outlaw?


Today is the 4th of July: the birthday of The United States. It is also arguably the birthday of the Outlaw movement in country music.

Nailing down an exact date when the Outlaw movement started depends on who you talk to, but a popular one is when Willie Nelson’s legendary 4th of July Picnics started in 1973. The Dripping Springs Reunion happened the previous year, but this was held in the Spring, and was marked by classic country performances from people like Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, and Roy Acuff. 1973 is when native Texans Willie, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson famously reunited to headline the festival.

There’s been a lot of questions on what really makes a country music Outlaw, and misconceptions abound. That is why the original Outlaws hated the term, and why new artists as well as fans use the term incorrectly. So I thought I would clarify:

Being a country music Outlaw has nothing to do with having tattoos. It has nothing to do with motorcycles, or how much you cuss in your music or reference drugs. It has nothing to do with rock influences in your music, nothing to do with if you “party” a lot or live an “Outlaw” lifestyle. Being an Outlaw has very little to do with the music itself. You can play traditional country, neo-traditional country, country-rock. There is no definable Outlaw country sound. As long as it is country music, it can be Outlaw music.

“Outlaw” is a business term more than anything. Yes, all the above can be and have been elements of the overall Outlaw culture, but neither Willie, Waylon, or Kris had tattoos, rode motorcycles, and none of them were big drinkers. What they had in common with Outlaws that were big drinkers like Johnny Paycheck, or that rode motorcycles and had tattoos like David Allan Coe, was that they had all fought for creative control of their music from the country music establishment, and won it. That is what makes a country music artist an Outlaw.

And just for the record, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and George Jones were never considered Outlaws, though you could say that Cash became an Outlaw near the end of his life with The Highwaymen project, and the Rick Ruben American Recordings later on, and he did have many dealings with The Outlaws over the years.

The original Outlaw was Bobby Bare, who was the first to fight for creative control of his music, and the first to open up new themes that before were taboo in country. This is typified by the 1966 song “Streets of Baltimore,” which very subtly is about a woman leaving her man to become a prostitute. The song was written by Tompall Glaser. Another taboo hurdle was cleared by Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which references wanting to be “stoned.” But Tompall started the Outlaw revolution in earnest when he built a renegade recording studio called “Hillbilly Central” on 19th Ave in Nashville.

At the time almost everything in Nashville was controlled by a few men: mainly RCA producer Chet Atkins, and the Acuff-Rose Publishing Company. Nearly all music coming out of Nashville was recorded at RCA’s “Studio B”. The songs recorded by artists were written by dedicated songwriters, and selected and arranged by record label producers. All studio musicians were selected by the producer, and were unionized so that no outside musicians (from an artist’s touring band, for example) could be used.

Enter not a musician, but a slick lawyer from New York named Neil Reshen. Reshen helped two disgruntled RCA artists—Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings—break their RCA contracts and wrestle control of their music. (You can read more about Reshen HERE.) Willie and Waylon were inspired to do this by watching Bobby Bare and rock musicians receive almost unilateral control over their music. Willie left RCA, and eventually singed with Atlantic, a rock label, with complete creative control. Waylon stayed with RCA, but established control over his music the likes of which had never been seen before on Music Row.

The first thing Waylon did was record an album of Billy Joe Shaver songs in 1973 called Honky Tonk Heroes at Tompall’s Hillbilly Central. This was one of the most significant moves in country music history, because after Reshen’s legal maneuverings, it broke the back of the Music Row monopoly, and opened the floodgate for artists to be able to record their music outside of RCA’s “Studio B” (or Studio A) and without using union studio musicians. It also ushered in a period where label-owned studios became virtually extinct, and independently-owned studios thrived.

willie-nelson-red-headed-strangerThe next significant move was Willie Nelson releasing Red Headed Stranger in 1975—considered by many as the greatest country music album of all time. It was done in a small studio in Garland, TX with Willie’s own musicians on a shoestring budget. The next year RCA released Wanted! The Outlaws, which became the first million-selling album in country music history. All the songs on those two albums were recorded with the artists having the final say.

So when artists like Josh Thompson say to blame their Outlaw ways on Waylon, meaning his college-style coed drinking antics and pop-style “partying,” it’s fair to object. Waylon’s “Outlaw Ways” would be to insist on not putting out music that was tooled from beginning to end by industry producers. It’s also fair to object when someone thinks being an Outlaw means getting a skull tattoo and interjecting devil and drug references into their music.

“Outlaw” is a state of mind; an approach based on strong-willed principles. Anything beyond that is lesser qualifying points based on opinion or simple elements of culture.

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