Introduction | Country Rock & The Outlaws | Country

When Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family became country music’s first superstars in 1927, their audience was the farmers, miners, wives and other blue-collar workers of the rural South.

It was an audience that left school early for a life of hard work in isolated communities. When those men and women gathered at a tavern or schoolroom on a Saturday night, they wanted their music strong and straightforward.

Thanks to the social programmes of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, however, the grandchildren of that original audience were attending college, watching television and criss-crossing the nation by the end of the 1960s, caught up in the political, cultural and sexual changes of that decade. When they plugged their earphones into the stereo, they wanted a music as irreverent, ironic and erotic as the world around them, but they wanted it in the musical language they had grown up with. They wanted it to sound like country even if it worked like rock’n’roll.

Two camps gave them what they wanted. Certain country performers – especially Texans such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver, but also Hank Williams Jr., the heir of country royalty – decided to roughen up their sound with louder drums, wilder guitars and ruder lyrics. They were dubbed the Outlaws.

Meanwhile, folk-rockers such as Gram Parsons, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, Bob Dylan and Neil Young realized that it was a short, natural jump from the Appalachian ballads and reels they already loved to traditional country music. The resulting hybrid was called country-rock, but it was the flip-side of the Outlaws coin. Whether they were honky-tonkers embracing rock or rockers embracing honky-tonk, they created a new kind of country music that resonated with the Confederate Diaspora, the descendants of the rural South who had dispersed throughout the USA, but who had never lost their native tongue – hillbilly songs.

Key Artists

The Byrds
Waylon Jennings
Willie Nelson

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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