(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
For a while in the 1970s, country music had a genuinely exciting insurgent movement that came to be known as Outlaw. It was not because any of the musical practitioners called themselves "Outlaws."
The name came from Hazel Smith, who at the time worked for genuine country music Outlaws Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser at Glaser's recording studio on 18th Avenue South.
She called them Outlaws because they were genuinely working outside the rigid Nashville feudal music system. It seems incredible these days to realize that what the Outlaws were really seeking was some degree of musical freedom and independence. They wanted to be able to choose the songs they would record, to choose the producer they would work with, to use their road band in the studio (or studio musicians of their choice) and to record where they wanted. Those simple artistic freedoms are pretty much givens today, but in the feudal Nashville of the early 1970s, the artist was a paid serf, just hired help, and the artist could make none of those decisions.
The Outlaws gradually beat that system by building a massive fan base outside Nashville's radar. Willie Nelson left town because he couldn't make it on Nashville's terms as a recording artist. He went to Austin, discovered an emerging hippie/redneck music audience and harnessed that previously-unknown crowd into a massive force.
He called his friend Waylon Jennings to come down to Austin and check out the scene. Lickety-split, they both had long hair and became champions of both the hippies and the rednecks. And they started selling records -- without changing their music. They sold lots of records. Including Nashville's first-ever platinum-selling album, Wanted! The Outlaws. (Note: They themselves never used the word "outlaw." They didn't title the album with the word "Outlaws." RCA Records, smelling success, did. And it worked.)
Nowadays, country music seems to have recently gotten outlaws again. Gotten outlaws in the same way that some people have gotten ants or bedbugs or cockroaches. We have a new infestation. To be sure, they're small outlaws, but they are insistent that they are here.
What's a bit alarming is that we seem to have cultivated a generation of young, male country performers who are preoccupied with displaying Outlaw attitude and Outlaw posturing, as opposed to developing real Outlaw musical content. Some belligerent song titles graphically tell the story: "Kiss My Country Ass," "If You Don't Like My Twang," "You Ain't Seen Country Yet," "Blame It on Waylon," "For the Outlawz," "I Could Kick Your Ass."
I've been interested in the recent album, Outlaws Like Me, by Justin Moore. It debuted this week at No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart.
Justin is a fine new artist, but if he's a true outlaw, then Miss Piggy is Dolly Parton. How is Moore an outlaw? Well, he's from a small town -- which is very chic in faux-Outlaw circles. Some of the songs on his new album are about rednecks and dirt roads and the like. All those are very essential elements in the faux-Outlaw trend.
In his autobiography, Waylon Jennings said self-proclaimed country outlaw David Allan Coe thinks being an outlaw is double parking on Music Row.
Coe, besides recording such country hits as "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" and writing "Take this Job and Shove It," actually did prison time, for relatively minor offenses. But he didn't measure up to Waylon's musical Outlaw standards.
Eric Church, who tried to closely identify himself with the Outlaw movement in his ACM Awards video campaign earlier this year, was recently asked by Taste of Country to name his tour essentials. His answer: "I have a couple of things. The two important things are a certain kind of sheets, because again, just anything that can make the bus feel like home [helps], so a high-quality thread count sheets ... that's a good one, and Jack Daniel's. We have it here [at home] and we have it on the road. We just make sure it's nearby." Surely Eric Church was kidding.
I would love to be able today to ask Waylon Jennings about his preferences in high thread-count sheets on the road. Some years, when Waylon was on the road and just scraping by, he seldom saw a bed, and if he did, it was a bonus if it even had sheets on it. Never mind what was on those sheets.
For that matter, what would ex-convict and Genuine Outlaw Merle Haggard have to say about high thread-count sheets?
The difference between the Genuine Outlaws and the Toy Outlaws? When the Outlaw scene became frenzied, Waylon Jennings wrote a song titled "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand?" Now, when some little Outlaw wannabes want to create a similar scene, Justin Moore co-writes a song called "Outlaws Like Me." So, now Justin is an Outlaw?
I suspect Moore is a well-meaning but slightly naive young man who hasn't the slightest idea what being an outlaw means or entails. The lyrics to his "Outlaws Like Me" (which he wrote with his collaborator Jeremy Stover) show an earnest naïveté: "I've cursed the sun, I've prayed for rain/I run a mile to walk through pain/I've seen the worse and I seen the best that I can be/God bless outlaws like me."
Of course, calling yourself an Outlaw in Nashville is the same thing as sticking a "Kick Me" note on your back.
Wanna-be Outlaw traces are all over many recent country releases. Image and "brand" are beginning to become artist temptations that may turn out to be lethal. Next to the Outlaw index, the next branding categories include: more country than you, more patriotic than you, more small-town than you, more back road than you. Can you spell "credible song"? Or "career suicide"? It's interesting that the only current country artist with a genuine claim to be a true Outlaw heir has never claimed to be anything other than what he is on his own. That would be Jamey Johnson, who doesn't need to pose to get his musical message across.
You know, there is a reason dirt roads get paved. Dirt roads are nothing but dust nuisances in hot weather, and then they turn into mud lollies that are sometimes dangerous when it rains. They're also good for miring down misguided toy outlaws who're gunning their shiny new Ford F-150 pickups down that romantic dirt road while drinking beer and high-fiving each other and busy being all rednecky until they fail to notice the muddy mess they're suddenly skidding into.