One Punk’s Guide to Outlaw Country by MP Johnson

Originally printed in Razorcake #90, Feb/March 2015, here is a printable PDF and full text of MP Johnson’s super-rad One Punk’s Guide to Outlaw Country.

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One Punk’s Guide to Outlaw Country

By MP Johnson

Early 2000s: Terry’s Pine Grove Pub on the aptly named Stagecoach Road. A rundown roadhouse amidst farms and fields somewhere in Northeastern Wisconsin. The middle of nowhere, really.

My girlfriend and I pulled up in a car. We had to park on the side of the road because the lot was full of motorcycles. The big ones. The mean ones. Harleys. Indians. All black paint. Lots of chrome. We were immediately out of place.

We made our way into the field out behind the dive bar, a field filled with bikers in patched leathers and denims. There’s a thing now where lawyers and CEOs get big bikes and ride them around on the weekends. This wasn’t that thing. These dudes were roadworn. Faded tattoos. Dirty hands. I didn’t know shit about motorcycle clubs, so the patches meant nothing to me. Lots of skulls. The word “Outlaws” in big, bold letters.

We wore punk rock T-shirts and smiles.

Before the sun set, a band climbed onto a makeshift stage propped up against the back of Terry’s. An old man stepped up to the microphone in a black sleeveless shirt, bared arms covered in tattoos, long hair streaming down his back, gray in places, dyed here and there. Colored bands adorned his braided beard, which ran down past his chest. I couldn’t tell whether he’d come from the South or from a spaceship. He scowled and introduced himself as David Allan Coe.

The bikers raised their beers. Over the next hour or so, this rugged motherfucker schooled everyone on the gritty, rock-fueled brand of country music he helped pioneer three decades earlier: outlaw country.

In “Longhaired Redneck,” he sang about playing at dives “where bikers stare at cowboys who are laughin’ at the hippies, who are prayin’ they’ll get out of here alive.” I looked around at the grizzled bikers who made up most of the crowd and the words didn’t ring true. None of them were staring at me. Smiling maybe, but not staring. I didn’t see a single fight. Nobody was fearing for their lives.

And when it came time for the final song and everybody—my girlfriend and me included—sung along to every word of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” It didn’t matter where we came from or what we rode in on—our shouts were forever mingled in that sweaty, Northeastern Wisconsin night.

Fuck Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash has dropped some badass records, but Johnny Cash is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to country music and it’s time to recognize that he is not the be-all and end-all of the genre. I’m sick of hearing people tell me, “I hate all country music, except Johnny Cash.” Fuck that.

But I understand. For many years, Cash’s The Sun Years and American Recordings were the only representation of country in my music collection. And I had only bought the latter for the Danzig song. That was all I needed to know about the genre, or so I thought. Then I picked up Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger.

I was at a record store in Neenah, Wisconsin, that was going out of business. There was some sort of three-fer deal. I grabbed Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance and another metal record, but was having a hell of a time completing my three-fer. Red Headed Stranger was sitting at the front of the country section and it caught my eye. It looked rustic. It looked rough. I worked at a factory and didn’t have much money coming in, so I had to pick the third record carefully. I didn’t know any of the songs. Fuck it. I bought it.

It wasn’t the first record I played out of that batch, but it ended up being the one I played the most. Yes, even more than Screaming for Vengeance. It wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. It was so sparse. It sounded like it had a coat of dust on it. Willie and his beat-up acoustic guitar were the breeze that blew that dust from song to song, telling the story of a preacher who loses his lady, loses his faith, and rides off on the trail of vengeance. On first listen, I got chills at the end of “Time of the Preacher,” the opening song: “Now the preachin’ is over, and the lesson’s begun.”

I was in awe of the storytelling, the depth of emotion, the purity of song and sound that Johnny Cash would get so much acclaim for decades later when Rick Rubin cajoled him into stripping off all the superficial bullshit for the American Recordings series. I lost my shit. I took a deep dive into Willie’s discography and discovered the outlaw country movement this record came from.

What Is Outlaw Country?

The outlaw country movement was about unfettered creativity, pure and simple. Much like punk, it was about standing up to the forces that favored the manufacture of sterile hits in favor of honesty and exploration in lyrics and sound.

The truth is, Johnny Cash was not part of the outlaw country movement. He hung out at the edges of the scene and helped his peers here and there, but he had already earned his creative freedom from the record labels. The documentary Heartworn Highways chronicled the country songwriters struggling for creative freedom in the ‘70s. In it, one of the songwriters calls it: by the time the outlaw movement started, Johnny Cash had “done blew his load.”

By the late ‘60s, Nashville dominated the country music scene thanks to record labels like RCA. Somewhere along the way though, the music had taken a wrong turn. The days of the raw shit purveyed by Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and other forebears were long gone. In their place were clean-cut dudes in fancy suits producing a pop-country hybrid referred to as “countrypolitan.”

Everything was so clean. On songs like Lynn Anderson’s “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” and Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” producers added layers of backing vocals and lush string sections. And not economically. No, they plastered those strings everywhere. They cleaned up the rough edges. They sucked out all the honky tonk. Country music had become so safe it was a joke.

The labels had created a factory-like system, and label heads like Chet Atkins at RCA refused to deviate from their formulas. The label picked the producer, the studio, and the studio musicians. The label or producer even picked the songs, not on the basis of making a cohesive album, but in a let’s-throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to making hits. So the records were scattered. Some contained good songs, but no cohesiveness, no personality.

Enter a handful of pill-popping cowboys who had some wild ideas and a relentless determination to see those ideas come to fruition. These guys hung out in the West End, Nashville’s answer to Greenwich Village. They wandered around Austin and other parts of Texas. They read and wrote poetry. They valued the song and the songwriter as much as they did the singer.

They were loud and rambunctious and they grew their hair long and didn’t have the sort of puritanical need to keep rock and country separate that the country stars of the day had. They stayed up all night in studios, partying and writing songs. They fought back against the record labels to record those songs and to record them the right way. With their touring bands, with producers and studios of their choosing. With songs that they wrote or that they believed in.

And without any fucking strings.

Meet the Outlaws

Chet Atkins and RCA had groomed Waylon Jennings as a nice folk-country singer, putting out albums with titles like Love of the Common People. Folk music was big at the time, so it seemed like a lucrative market. Well, that’s just not who Waylon was. This was a dude who had played in Buddy Holly’s band and who held the burden of The Day The Music Died in his heart, having joked to Holly on that fateful night, “I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” He was a road dog, with a touring band that pulled in crowds night after night, but he couldn’t get them in the studio. He couldn’t get his own sounds in the studio until he finally put the pressure on RCA, got himself a shrewd manager, and set out to make a record he wanted to make.

1973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean was the first record where Waylon was given a measure of freedom. The title track crashes out of the gate, trampling his label-prescribed folk-country image with a stomping bass line turned up high in the mix. That galloping, bass-driven sound would become his signature, a rowdy sound that meshed beautifully with his deep, booming voice. On the surface, it was the perfect sound for drinking and brawling. It came packaged with lyrics that contrasted against the saccharine lines of the Countrypolitan hits so severely they revealed them for the one-dimensional crap they were.

Perhaps the most blatant indication of how much the outlaw movement valued songwriters was the success of Kris Kristofferson. The lyrical shift that took place with the outlaw movement is often described as a shift toward “more mature themes.” That’s bullshit. The themes were the same: love and loss and life. The distinction is that songwriters like Kristofferson explored these themes with greater depth and detail, greater candor. They wrote lyrics based on the lives they’d lived. They strived for authenticity and poetry and didn’t worry about hit-making. Kristofferson, a disciple of the English poet William Blake, was a well-to-do kid from Brownsville, Texas. A star college athlete who flew a helicopter in Vietnam, he earned his parents’ ire by uprooting his life and family and moving to Nashville with little more than a love of writing songs. In the song “The Pilgrim-Chapter 33” he wrote:

“He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars,
and he’s traded in tomorrow for today.
Runnin’ from his devils, Lord,
and reachin’ for the stars,
and losin’ all he’s loved along the way.”

That kind of honest songwriting just wasn’t coming out of Nashville at the time, and people noticed. Specifically, Johnny Cash noticed. Cash supported Kristofferson and was one of the first to bring the songwriter onstage to sing his own songs, a strange move. Kristofferson had come to Nashville to write songs and had no intention of being a singer. Still, he ended up performing and signed a recording contract, despite the fact that at best, his singing might be described as handsome, and at worst, it might be described as sounding like a bum with a bunch of socks stuffed in his mouth. It didn’t matter, because everyone was taken aback by those lyrics, from his peers in Nashville (Cash and Waylon and Willie and many more recorded Kristofferson’s songs) to rockers and hippies and just regular people.

It says a lot that on Kristofferson’s album The Silver Tongued Devil and I there is only one song written by someone other than him: “Good Christian Soldier” by Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe Shaver came from a different world than Kristofferson. He grew up poor in Corsicana, Texas. He lost a good chunk of the fingers on his right hand in a mill accident as a young man, but he taught himself how to play guitar anyway and set himself to writing songs. In “Georgia on a Fast Train,” he writes:

“And I just thought I’d mention,
my Grandma’s old age pension,
is the reason why I’m standing here today.
I got all my country learning,
milking and a churning,
pickin’ cotton, raisin’ hell,
and bailin’ hay.”

Kristofferson took notice of Billy Joe Shaver and even produced his debut album Old Fiver and Dimers like Me. After Waylon gained the right to choose the songs he recorded, he put together an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver songs: Honky Tonk Heroes. That album and Willie’s Red Headed Stranger are perhaps the purest examples of what the outlaw country scene was all about.

Something odd happened with Red Headed Stranger: the label thought the record was a joke at first. One label head was furious because he thought Willie had recorded it in a kitchen somewhere just to get out of his contract. Red Headed Stranger ended up selling millions. With this record, country busted out of being a niche market and sold to rockers and hippies. Hell, even young punks like Jello Biafra, who would later cover Willie’s “Still Is Still Moving to Me,” picked this shit up. Outlaw country became a regular phenomenon.

David Allan Coe had come to Nashville in a hearse, which he parked outside the Grand Ol’ Opry, Nashville’s traditional country music institution. He played his music there and anywhere else he could. With his time spent behind bars and tall tales of murder and misdeeds, he was a shoo-in for the outlaw country movement.

Like the other the outlaws, it took him a few albums to warm up. His debut Penitentiary Blues was a bluesy take on life in prison—it sounded nothing like the sound he would become known for. He really didn’t lock into his signature sound until his fourth album Once upon a Rhyme. That album opens with “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)”—the ballad that would seal his reputation as a songwriter, a song that would be covered by everyone from Tanya Tucker, who made it a hit, to The Divine Horsemen (an offshoot of The Flesh Eaters). But it was the title track of the following album, Longhaired Redneck (notoriously covered by GG Allin), that really cemented his image as a true outlaw that bikers and barroom brawlers could look up to.

Emmylou Harris may not be the first person name-dropped in discussions of the movement, but records like Pieces of Sky displayed everything that the scene was about: originality, energy, honesty. The opening track “Bluebird Wine” brings in rock influences and a chorus of “And it’s all right now, I’ve just hit my stride” that just doesn’t leave your head.

Jessi Colter unleashed a run of records in the ‘70s that have never gotten their due. She doesn’t even get her due in her own releases. I’ve got a CD that collects three of her best records, starting with I’m Jessi Colter, and the liner notes begin by saying the number one reason “this lady deserves your time: She was married to two very famous musicians in Duane Eddy and Waylon Jennings.” That’s why you need to know about Jessi? Not because her voice could move so effortlessly from soft and fragile to a growl that would make any of her brethren in the scene jealous? Not because she wrote songs that far inferior country dudes managed to run up the charts? Not because she was a classically trained pianist who could crush it on the keys?

The few Colter songs that made it out as singles were ballads like the weepy “I’m Not Lisa.” Sure, they were beautiful songs, but when you listen to them in the context of albums that included stompers and rockers like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” they seem a little tepid. The latter tune dared to tread further into rock territory than a lot of her outlaw peers had tread before.

The story of outlaw country is often painted as being the story of Waylon, Willie, and Kristofferson. Yeah, those guys were the most visible, but they were also the guys who eventually drifted the furthest from the movement’s initial goal of authenticity and creativity. Townes Van Zandt didn’t get the hits the other guys did, but looking back, his records stayed a lot more true to the outlaw country ethos.

Then there’s a veritable army of Tompall Glasers and Steve Youngs who were at the heart of the chaos, even if they didn’t get the spotlight. There were guys at the edge of the scene like Shel Silverstein, who I first encountered not as the writer of “A Boy Named Sue” and other comedic country tunes, but when I, like a lot of kids in my generation, read his book of poems Where the Sidewalk Ends over and over in grade school.

But Were They Actually Outlaws?

Hazel Smith, a well-known publicist and journalist working in Nashville in the ‘70s, coined the phrase “Outlaw Country.” The media had been looking for a buzzword for the music that was coming out. She picked up a dictionary and found the word “outlaw.” Seemed like a good fit to her. But these guys weren’t criminals. They were musicians.

Well, primarily.

There were a lot of drugs in the scene. It was mostly speed in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Pills. Then around the mid-‘70s, cocaine came to Nashville and became the drug of choice. Everyone was doing it. Waylon spent thousands of dollars on the stuff and soon found himself the target of a DEA investigation. He was arrested and faced drug conspiracy charges. The charges against him were eventually dismissed, but some of his people were convicted. Willie’s drug of choice was marijuana, and he was busted a few times for possession. That was about as far outside of the law that he and most of the outlaws got.

But the scene could be violent. Tours took groups to what they referred to as “the skull orchard,” dingy middle-of-nowhere dives with rough and tumble crowds. In the book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, Billy Ray Reynolds, Waylon’s guitar player at the time, recounts a tale of violence at one of these shows. A woman was messing with her ex, dancing with every man in the joint just to fuck with him. Between Waylon’s sets, the guy went nuts. “This guy just walked up and shot the guy she was dancing with right in front of us.” In a separate incident, a shootout in Atlanta left Paul Gray, another member of Waylon’s band, dead. Violence like this added to the mystique of Waylon and the other outlaws, and record sales grew along with it.

But some of the stories were just stories. For a good part of his career, David Allan Coe spread a tale about the violence that got him put behind bars and the violence he committed there; he claimed he killed a fellow prisoner who tried to rape him. The media ate that shit up and many reported his stories as verifiable facts. Later it came out that his claims of killing were unsubstantiated and that he had been locked up for possession of burglary tools.

The Death and Rebirth of Outlaw Country

Full disclosure: I never actually listened to Kristofferson until recently. I couldn’t take him seriously. My first encounter with him was well before I gave a shit about country music at all. He starred in a movie called Knights, which came out in the wake of Jean Claude Van Damme’s Cyborg, amidst the cyborg B-movie frenzy of the early ‘90s. In it, Kristofferson plays Gabriel, a grizzled old warrior cyborg who trains a young kickboxer to destroy the evil cyborgs. He spouts goofy cyber-philosophy. It’s about as far removed from the poetry of his early albums as you can get and was one of many wrong turns taken by the outlaws beginning in the late ‘70s.

Despite doing everything possible to thwart the record label hit-making tactics, the outlaws made hits. Not only did they make hits, they made some of the biggest-selling country albums of all time. Hippies dug Kristofferson. Rockers got into Waylon. Everybody loved Willie. Those records cruised up not only the country charts, but also the more far-reaching pop charts.

And, as these stories usually go, success fucks everything up. While the outlaws maintained their creative control, they also bowed to the pressure of living up to their sales figures. 1978’s Ol’ Waylon opens with “Luchenbach, Texas,” a song that Jennings hated but decided to record because he knew a hit when he heard one. Well, it was a hit. It was also slick and overproduced, and his records just got cleaner in the years that followed. That driving bass that served him so well starting with Lonesome, On’ry and Mean was pushed deeper and deeper into the mix. Personally, I enjoy hearing Waylon’s booming baritone singing just about anything, but as much as I love his cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” there’s just something not particularly outlaw about it.

The same year Ol’ Waylon came out, Willie  released Stardust. That album became an instant hit but it’s not a country record by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a record of pop standards like the title track. There’s no doubt that it’s a great album, and a perfect fit for Willie’s habit of jumping around the beat vocally, but where’s the outlaw shit?

And I’m not even going to get started on “Divers do it Deeper,” David Allen Coe’s Jimmy Buffet impersonation.

Now, if you turn on just about any country music station, you’re going to be lamenting the demise of outlaw country. There are certainly no remnants of it on commercial radio, where pop country and bro country reign supreme.

In the same way it’s happened with punk, rock, hip-hop and other genres, authenticity and creativity in country music have gone underground. If you go by the definition of outlaw country as being about creativity and originality, there’s still plenty of stuff out there. If you are looking for something that actually sounds like the outlaw shit that Waylon, Willie, and the gang were putting out in the ‘70s, that’s a bit tougher to find. Few are embracing the mix of rock and country that so many of the outlaws favored. Right now, Hank Williams Sr. pastiche is in vogue.

Say what you will about Hank III’s attempts at metal and punk, he’s released some great outlaw country stuff. He sounds eerily like his great granddad vocally, but musically he’s straight out of ‘70s outlaw territory. Shooter Jennings, son of Jessi Colter and Waylon, has recorded some tedious industrial stuff, but also a handful of great records that draw influence from his parents.

Some other younger country singers and bands embracing the outlaw sound include Whitey Morgan, Nikki Lane, Lydia Loveless, and Hellbound Glory. I just caught Sturgill Simpson live a couple nights ago opening for Merle Haggard and Kristofferson at the county fair. This guy has come out of nowhere with heartfelt country music that draws inspiration from the outlaw movement, but with his own stamp. His “Life of Sin” is crucial. Surprisingly, his indie releases have caught national attention. Maybe a resurgence of outlaw country is on the way?

Billy Joe Shaver

Early 2010s: Granada Theater. Dallas, Texas. Cowboys mingling with people in fancy clothes. Nice joint. A man with a fistful of missing fingers takes the stage and beats on an old guitar while the crowd watches in awe. He tells stories of love and loss that are so honest you have to fight to keep your knees from buckling.

For my money, Billy Joe Shaver is outlaw country.

He was there at the beginning, dusting it up with Waylon, Willie, and Kristofferson. They recorded his songs. Despite not having the strongest voice, he put out an album or two of his own. In the ‘80s, when the other outlaws were selling out, he stayed true to what he had set out to do. His records didn’t get much attention but he kept making them—and somehow his voice grew stronger, richer, and weightier with age.

In the early ‘90s, he teamed up with his son, guitar player Eddy Shaver. Eddy, who had been tutored by Dicky Betts from the Allman Brothers, brought a little more rock’n’roll to the mix. They made a series of records that culminated in The Earth Rolls On, my vote for best country record of the ‘90s.

This was a record made in the wake of the death of Billy Joe’s wife Brenda. The two had a tumultuous relationship. They had divorced twice. Before her death,, they remarried for the third time. His lyrics reflect the joys of love and the pain of loss, but without any saccharine bullshit. In “Blood Is Thicker than Water,” Eddy sings a verse: “I seen you puking up your guts and running with sluts when you was married to my mother.” It’s a hard album to listen to in a lot of ways because of that honesty, but the joy of a father and a son working together to create something so pure after many rocky years is a stark contrast to the sadness.

Unfortunately, Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose right around the time of the album’s release.

Over the years, Billy Joe Shaver has maybe stayed a little too true to his outlaw spirit. In the late 2000s, he shot a man in the face outside a tavern in Lorenzo, Texas. According to reports, the victim’s injuries were not life threatening. Through some impressive lawyering and claims of self-defense, he was acquitted. When asked by National Public Radio about the incident, he said, “I hit him right between a ‘mother’ and a ‘fucker.’ That was the end of that.”

Billy Joe continues to record albums that remind me why I got into outlaw country in the first place. On The Real Deal, one of his more recent albums, there’s a song called “Down the Road By the Way” that has one of my favorite choruses ever:

“Well it’s down the road up the hill
And just around the bend
Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down
And pick ‘em up again
And it sets me in to wondering
What it’s really all about
Fighting for the things we know
We’ll always be without.”

I have yet to hear life summed up any better.