Styles & Forms | The Outlaw Movement | Country

By the late-1960s, the Nashville music industry had grown slick, complacent and predictable, even as the greater national culture, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, was entering an era of tumult and rebellion. Largely as a result of this, the outlaw movement arose.

It began as a rudimentary grassroots uprising, instigated by a handful of talented artists whose rough edges and quirky individualism simply didn’t fit the prescribed Nashville mold. But, as it gained momentum and the Nashville music industry sensed its commercial viability, the outlaw movement soon became part of the mainstream. As a result, it reinvigorated country music with its vital, restless anti-heroic spirit.

Outlaw music was a musical throwback that drew from the raw spirit of 1950s and 1960s Texas-style honky-tonk while infusing it with the aggressive spirit of rock’n’roll urgency and rebellion. While the image of the typical Nashville sound practitioner was that of the clean-cut singer in a well-pressed western suit and an ingratiating ‘aw-shucks’ smile, the outlaw image was about shaggy hair, dirty blue jeans and a wary, world-weary, hungover scowl. Instrumentally, the outlaws favoured a raw, bedrock guitar-steel guitar-drum-fiddle sound that flew in the face of Nashville sound refinements.

Wanted! The Outlaws

The outlaw movement was in large part launched by two artists: fellow Texans Waylon Jennings (from Texas’s northern Panhandle region) and Willie Nelson (who was born in central Texas, not too far south of Dallas). Nelson and Jennings both spent the better part of the 1960s in Nashville as outsiders in an industry that didn’t seem to know quite what to make of them. Both men experienced years of frustration while struggling to rise through Nashville’s highly regimented, producer-dominated studio system.

Shotgun Willie

Willie Nelson enjoyed considerable success as a Nashville songwriter in the 1960s. The steady string of hits he penned for artists like Patsy Cline (‘Crazy’) earned him a six-figure income. Though he spent years trying to break through as a recording artist, only two of the many singles he released between 1962 and 1975 even reached the country Top 10. His unconventional baritone possesses rough hewn but powerful gravity, but Nelson has always favoured jazz-like vocal inflections and a propensity for singing slightly ahead of or behind the beat, which confounded Nashville producers.

Nelson’s commercial and artistic breakthrough began in the early 1970s with a pair of raw, back-to-basics and somewhat autobiographical albums (Shotgun Willie and Phases And Stages) that he recorded for Atlantic Records at the encouragement of noted rock producer/executive Jerry Wexler. But Nelson really defined his sound and persona with Red Headed Stranger, released in 1975 by Columbia Records, a musically austere, thematically complex song-cycle set in the mythical Old West. Nelson recorded the album on a shoestring budget of $20,000 in a small Texas studio, having written most of the songs and produced it himself. With its minimalist arrangements and stark semi-mystical themes of betrayal, murder and redemption, Red Headed...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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