High Spirits Abound at CMT Outlaws Special

Hank Williams Jr. Joined by Kid Rock and Other Friends -- New and Old

“I’ll take any label,” Kid Rock says. “It doesn’t matter to me. I know who I am. That’s all that matters.”

It was an off-the-cuff comment made in September when an all-star concert special was taped in Nashville, but the sentiment is shared by anyone who makes music without worrying about stylistic limits or, for that matter, what anybody thinks about it.

That uncompromising spirit is obvious at every turn when CMT Outlaws premieres Friday (Oct. 29) at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The concert features performances by Hank Williams Jr., Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry, Big & Rich, Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings, Metallica’s James Hetfield and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington, Billy Powell and Johnny Van Zant — and, of course, Kid Rock.

Musicians have better things to do than spend time closely analyzing their own styles, but John Rich of Big & Rich offered his thoughts about the word “outlaw.”

“That name can carry several different things, depending on which guy you’re talking about,” Rich said. “But we’re definitely freethinkers in our music, which to me is what the outlaw movement in Nashville was. … Guys like Hank Jr., and Kid Rock and some of the other artists on here are definitely freethinkers in their music. They haven’t let boundaries really get in their way of what they wanted to do with their music.”

Observing the prevailing attitude among those performing at the Outlaws concert, Big Kenny, noted, “I mean, you’ve brought in from the heaviest rock to the countriest country being played on radio right now. And to put all of that together, it’s evident to me that they just love music. We all just love music. We don’t really care where it comes from, as long as it’s great. Then we love it, and I think that’s a common denominator.”

Given his background as guitarist-vocalist in the rock band Metallica, James Hetfield is perhaps the least country of the acts on the Outlaws concert, but he contributed his version of “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” to the 2003 compilation, I’ve Always Been Crazy: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings.

“Obviously, all of us, in our own ways, are outlaws of sorts that kind of get off the main path and try to carve our own,” Hetfield said. “We don’t know where we’re going most of the time. We just want to have fun, we want to express ourselves, and the gift we have been given is music. And to please a bunch of other people has not been on our radar.”

Another rocker, Lynyrd Skynyrd founding member Gary Rossington, has noticed how styles and musical tastes evolve.

“When you think about what country music is these days — and what Lynyrd Skynyrd was in the ’70s — there’s no difference,” he said. “There really isn’t. Country has an edge, and Skynyrd’s always had some country in it, so it’s a great mixture.”

Williams had already formed friendships with Southern rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band by the time a fall from a mountain in Montana almost took his life in 1975. As he returned to the spotlight after the recovery, though, some people weren’t impressed that he was spending time with the rock crowd.

“I was doing a lot of blues and rock,” he said. “And you just never know what’s gonna happen. Back then … well, yeah … you know, ’Hank’s crazy, and he’s hanging around with Skynyrd and Tucker, and he’s just not doing country.’ And all of that kind of went away a couple of years later when the lid blew off, and we started playing to 10,000 instead of 800.”

Noting the changing times, Williams said he remembered seeing country and rock music being discussed on TV during the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“They’d interview a college kid and they’d say, ’Well, you know, we like Marshall Tucker and Waylon and Hank, but we don’t like country,'” he recalled. “And they’d look right in the camera and say that: ’We don’t like country.’ Well, I’ve watched that evolve, and that’s what’s wonderful today.

“And I’m glad I had a little something to do with it.”