“Outlaw country” is a term you don’t hear much today, but it was a big deal in the 1970s and 80s. Even if most of outlaw country’s defining stars are now dead (Hank Williams Sr.), mostly inactive (Jessi Colter), or very old (Willie Nelson, may he live forever), the ethos they forged in previous decades continues to inform artists of today, even if the sound of these early stars has greatly evolved in the intervening decades.
To better understand who helped create the outlaw movement in country music, as well as outlaw country’s continuing influence, let’s take a look at some of the genre’s biggest stars.
Outlaw Country’s Outlaws
Like so many other groundbreaking genres, who helped create the outlaw movement in country music has roots that were forged in the 50s and 60s. By the 1960s, America’s country sound had become synonymous with Nashville. Slick and inoffensive, it had grown into a genre popular among the country’s middle class.
However, there were many Americans who related to “country” as an identity who didn’t relate to the glossy, orchestrated ballads of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. As the American counterculture movement hit the American South, a new kind of country star was born.
The transformation was a natural one. Country stars active prior to counterculture (such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash) had lifestyles well outside of mainstream society. Sex and drugs were just as prominent in this scene as they were in rock n’ roll. They were, however, anathema for anodyne suburban big country of the day.
Big personalities like Cash leaned into the bad reputation their wild lifestyles earned them. Cash’s lyrics are filled with sin, fury, and desperation, and his most famous live albums were recorded in prisons. As the country moved into the 60s, artists like Willie Nelson grew their hair long like the hippies of that era and picked up the rebellious lyrical conceits of these outlaw forebears.
In the 1970s, outlaw country artists like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., and David Allan Coe carried the movement forward. Their rock-influenced country pared down the symphonic bombast of the 70’s Nashville sound, and their lyrics combined tall tales from the wild west tall and confessional poetry, all of which appealed to fans of grittier content.
During this era, country hotspots outside of Nashville began to flourish, as counter-culture icons like Townes Van Zandt built careers out of cities like Austin, Texas.
Outlaw Country’s Ongoing Influence
Outlaw country of the 70s and 80s influenced the alt-country movement of the 90s and 2000s, led by artists as diverse as Hank Williams III (and his band Assjack), Wilco, and Ryan Adams.
Today, there are still strong alternatives to the still-slick mainstream Nashville country sound (like Sturgill Simpson), though country music as a whole seems to be giving way to larger cultural movements (Taylor Swift, Lil Nas X.)
Outlaw country appealed to country fans looking for rebellion, grit, and authenticity. Like so many other American genres, country’s hardcore fanbase has always been fairly low on the socio-economic totem pole. There will always be a segment of this group that doesn’t see themselves in the whitewashed country-pop tunes on the airwaves at any given moment.
Just as rap fans look to “gangstas” like Biggie Smalls as the embodiment of the true hip hop ethos, country fans will always look to artists like Johnny Cash as emblematic of the same spirit within their respective genres.
The people who helped create the outlaw movement in country music matter for today and through time.
No matter what happens to country music in the future, “the outlaw” will remain an archetypal character within the American mythos. So as long as some vestige of country, folk, or Americana music endures, outlaw country will also in some form or fashion.