NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie & Waylon and the Outlaw Thing

"There's always another way to do things. ... Your way."

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The new CMT Outlaws special brings to mind the origins of the original Outlaw movement in country music. It’s a long, complicated history, but at heart, it’s a tale of two country artists who were lost and ultimately found their way.

The roots of the movement are many and varied: not as many are musical as you might think. Some were cultural, some sociological and some were as quirky and seemingly mundane as the decision by an Austin rock hall manager to book Willie Nelson for a show when he knew that his usual audiences had no idea who Willie Nelson was.

Willie had been pretty much rejected as a recording artist in Nashville and went back to Texas in the early ’70s to regroup, lick his wounds and decide what to do next. The hippie rock emporium Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin asked him to play a show, and the hippies latched on to Willie, and he kept coming back. I was living in Austin and went to some of those shows, which were pretty magical. Willie was tapping into the old elemental Texas tradition of goodtime yet hell-raising family shows, in a way that no one had since Bob Wills.

Meanwhile in Nashville, Waylon Jennings’ record company told him that he couldn’t record the songs that he wanted to, that he couldn’t record with his road band and that he couldn’t record where he wanted to.

A spirit of independence — that was mainly what the whole Outlaw thing was about. That, and marrying the energy and spirit of rock ‘n’ roll to the truth and honesty that country music had traditionally presented but had lately been getting away from.

Willie told Waylon about this strange new audience he was getting at the Armadillo, where hippies and cowboys were actually at his shows side by side, peacefully co-existing. “I think I’ve found something,” Willie told Waylon. “Come down and check it out.” He did.

Then Willie started his Fourth of July Picnics outside Austin, which were a huge cultural mixing bowl of different musics and a continuing audience blend of cowboys and hippies. Willie built an audience base and went into the studio and made an unorthodox album he believed in — Red Headed Stranger. His record label didn’t like it, but Willie fought, and it finally was released in 1975, and it became his first No. 1 album.

Waylon fought RCA hard for independence and finally won a contractual battle to control his career. He effectively broke the feudal system in Nashville. His first album that was done the way he wanted it was Dreaming My Dreams in 1975, which became his first No. 1 album.

I had already met Waylon, through a curious process. He wanted to talk to me because of a negative review I had written about his 1972 album Ladies Love Outlaws. It sounded unfinished to me, and that’s what I wrote in the pages of Rolling Stone — which I didn’t realize he read. So, one day I’m in my apartment in Austin and the phone rings. It’s Nashville calling and a voice saying, “Please hold for Waylon Jennings.” I was fairly apprehensive, I tell you. Waylon came on the line. “Hoss,” he said, “I just wanted to tell you what you wrote about that album is the truth, and I appreciate that.” He went on to tell me that he had not, in fact, finished the album and that RCA released it without his permission when he was hospitalized with hepatitis. He ended up by saying, “C’mon and ride the bus with us.” So I went out on the road with him. Rolling Stone wasn’t quite ready for a story on Waylon (it soon would be), so I sold the story to the rock magazine Creem, where I occasionally wrote, sharing pages there with the likes of my late friend Lester Bangs.

In 1973, Waylon cut the album that became the template for the Outlaw movement. Honky Tonk Heroes, made up mostly of songs by the genius Texas writer Billy Joe Shaver, was a musical declaration of independence and celebration of freedom. That, more than anything, I think, attracted artists and fans alike to what Waylon was shaping. That album, like most of Waylon’s work, stands up very well to this day.

Jerry Bradley, who ran RCA in Nashville, decided smartly that there must be a quick way to capture and market that Outlaw notion itself. He put together tracks from Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser and called it Wanted: The Outlaws. I was then at Rolling Stone in New York and had been writing about Waylon and Willie and Tanya Tucker and David Allan Coe and Billy Joe Shaver and other Outlaw-orbit inhabitants. (The name “Outlaw” came from Hazel Smith, who was working at Hillbilly Central, Glaser’s studio, where Waylon recorded.) Bradley and Waylon asked me to write the liner notes for the album, which was quite an honor.

The Outlaws became country music’s first million-selling album, and suddenly outlaws were nationally chic. By then, though, the real Outlaw thing had crested and was starting to be over. The Willie-and-Waylon-wannabes were coming out of the woodwork. Waylon wrote “Don’t You Think this Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?” Rebellions have a difficult time maintaining momentum once they succeed.

And the Outlaw legacy? Waylon and Willie showed that it is possible, even in a music industry that was then run like a feudal system, to stand up for yourself, to successfully fight for your independence, to gain the freedom to record the music you want to record and the freedom to control your own career. There wouldn’t be young artists stepping up today as maverick artists seeking their own paths if it hadn’t been for those long-ago battles. As Waylon said, “There’s always another way to do things. …Your way.”