(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
So it’s been almost 40 years since the heyday of the Outlaw movement in country music and now the sure signs of Outlaw nostalgia are sprouting all around us. We have a whole new young generation of country singers who try to talk and look Outlaw, as if it were a costume you could buy at the Halloween store.
And now there are outcroppings of serious considerations of the Outlaw times. There’s a new book that takes a scholarly approach to the movement, and there’s an ambitious video project underway under the aegis of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
To backtrack, a simple summary, and I do mean simple summary, of the Outlaw movement is that basically in the early 1970s some country music mavericks began chafing under the feudal system in place in Nashville.
The record label heads and the record producers — often the same people — ran Nashville. They decided who would be signed to the labels. They decided what songs each artist would record, who would produce the session and which backing artists would play on the records.
It was almost always an all-male group of favored studio musicians who played on most Nashville records. Then the record label head/producer produced the session and decided which song would be the first single to be sent to country radio — which is a whole ’nother story altogether.
That system began to be challenged in the early 1970s, first by Waylon Jennings, who mainly wanted to record what he wanted, where he wanted and with his road band.
Meanwhile, Willie Nelson had given up on Nashville and moved to Austin, where he discovered a new audience at the Armadillo World Headquarters. He called his buddy Waylon to come on down and share this new crowd of hippies and cowboys.
Willie also recorded Red Headed Stranger on his own in Dallas with minimal musical accompaniment. His label, Columbia, initially rejected it but finally gave in. It became his biggest hit ever.
Once Willie and Waylon gained control of their recordings and began selling in platinum numbers, everything changed. Everyone in Nashville understood the power of money.
To make a very long story short, it seemed that everybody became an Outlaw and discovered cocaine. As the movement became ungainly and crowded, it was replaced by, of all things, the Urban Cowboy movement.
Now those days are being relived and recalled by a couple of new projects. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is partnering with Austin-based filmmaker Sean Geadelmann for an ambitious documentary called They Called Us Outlaws.
The title stems from an interview Geadelmann did with Kris Kristofferson. In it, Kristofferson said, “I don’t think that would’ve been the brand name we would’ve chosen. To be outlaws. I think we went our own way and spoke our own words because we believed in them. And believed in that’s what we were set down on the planet to do. We weren’t worried about commerciality. Because it didn’t make any difference if we were on the Hit Parade or whether we were making a lot of money. It was whether we were doing the good work … writing soulful songs.”
Another current project is a book to be published June 4. Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville is by Michael Streissguth, who teaches at Le Moyne in Syracuse, N.Y., and has written books on Johnny Cash, among others.
I find it interesting that Streissguth emphasizes that the roots of the Outlaw movement stretch equally from Nashville’s West End to Austin and beyond and encompass singer-songwriters ranging from Kris, Waylon and Willie, to Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and a host of others. It was, he argues, a spontaneous movement that would have happened no matter what and who was involved. It was a declaration of independence by like-minded individuals.
Interestingly, he feels that the initial spark came from Nashville’s civil rights movement and lunch counter sit-ins. That same sense of revolt and progressivism spread to Nashville’s music community.