By Stanley Booth
Gadfly November 1998
were tears on the mail, that she wrote me in jail,
but I'm free from the chain gang now."—"I'm
Free from the Chain Gang Now,"
(Lou Hersher‑Saul Klein)
One of Jimmie Rodgers' last recordings, May 17,
1933. He died of TB on May 26.
Rodgers, born in Pine Springs, Mississippi, on
September 8, 1897, is known as the Father of Country
Music. The beginning of true country music, in
the modern sense, is thought by many to be the
recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, in August
of 1927, when an independent producer for the
Victor Talking Machine Company named Ralph Peer
recorded, among others, Rodgers and the Carter
A HISTORICAL VIGNETTE
James, shot from behind in St. Joseph, Missouri,
on April 4, 1882, by a false friend, Robert Ford,
remains one of the best‑known Americans,
and most people remember the song about "the
dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard [James's
alias], and laid Jesse James in his grave."
Robert L. Kennedy, writing about the song in the
Springfield, Missouri, Leader, for
October 18, 1933, recalled that "An old blind
woman used to stand in front of the court house
in Springfield and sing it by the hour; mourners
would drop coins in her tin can. She went up to
Richmond, Missouri, and was singing her sad song
with tears in her voice when she found herself
slapped and kicked into the middle of the street.
Bob Ford's sister happened to be passing that
significance of this anecdote lies in the way
it reveals the sheer orneriness in the American
character: a poor old blind woman can't eulogize
a dead outlaw without getting her face slapped
by a partisan of his assassin.
Country was a marketing device, a way of packaging
and labeling a certain kind of white Southern
music in the seventies. Willie Nelson and Waylon
Jennings are probably its two best‑known
exponents. However, an outlaw, strictly speaking,
is someone who is placed outside the protection
of the law; it's not a one‑sided affair.
Outlawry in the sense of wrongdoing, crime, is
so much entangled with the roots of country music
(the first country record to sell a million copies
was Vernon Dalhart's "The Prisoner's Song,"
recorded August 13, 1924) that its absence rather
than its presence should be surprising.
have to confess that I resent the use of the term
outlaw in this context, partly for personal reasons.
I spent a number of years writing a book that
I called The True Adventures of the Rolling
Stones Outlaw Band. In the sixties, the Rolling
Stones, symbols of drugs, sex, and decadent music,
all things decent English folk abhorred, were
effectively outlawed. By the time the book came
to be published, its editor, who had been in the
tenth grade when Jimi Hendrix died, was so repelled
by Nashville representations concerning outlaws
that he wouldn't hear of using the word outlaw
in my title. But the Stones really were, during
the time I was writing about, outlaws. That's
one reason Brian Jones is dead. Maybe it's not
the term outlaw but callow editorial opinion I
resent. And in spite of its use as a sales ploy,
the outlaw label, even in Nashville, had some
justification. After federal narcs in 1977 invaded
the studio where he was recording, Waylon Jennings
wrote a song called, "Don't You Think this
Outlaw Bit's Got Out of Hand?" Having the
feds bust your session may not establish your
outlaw bona fides, but it does give evidence of
some seriousness. Charlie Rich is not usually
included among the country outlaws, but if ever
a man was, he was a true outlaw in his heart.
A defining moment for me was the televised 1975
Country Music Awards show on which Jennings handed
Rich the envelope containing the name of the Country
Music Entertainer of the year. Rich opened it,
read—silently— the name John Denver,
took out his cigarette lighter, and set the envelope
on fire. "People remember things like that,"
the Nashville songwriter Paul Craft said, not
is a company town, as far as music goes; the big
studios there have been owned by major record
labels like RCA Victor. Rich, from Arkansas, started
his career at Sun in Memphis, where demonstrative
behavior was the norm. Nashville by the middle
fifties had come to be defined by the conservative
politics of Roy Acuff and the equally conservative
demeanor of Chet Atkins, who modestly described
himself as "a hunched‑over guitar player."
He played well above his raising. The outlaws,
Willie and Waylon, like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank
Williams before them, were not interested in playing
above their raising.
list of country entertainers with some claim to
outlaw associations is long. It includes, to various
degrees and for various reasons, Dalhart, Rodgers,
the Carters, Dock Boggs, Carson Robinson, Cliff
Carlisle, Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Milton Brown,
Bob Dunn, Spade Cooley, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams,
Merle Travis, Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Ray
Price, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis,
Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, George Jones, Tammy
Wynette, Dolly Parton, Freddy Fender, Huey P.
Meaux, Jerry McGill, Gram Parsons, Kris Kristofferson,
Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Blaze Foley, Jimmie
Dale Gilmore, Billy Joe Shaver, Butch Hancock,
Steve Young, Johnny Paycheck, David Allan Coe,
Hank Williams, Jr., and others. We won't have
time or space here, of course, to investigate
all of these cases fully, or even in part. During
the commercial ascendancy of the Outlaw Country
promotion, its central figure was Waylon Jennings.
1973 Waylon Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes:
a collection of songs by the classic Texas songwriter
Billy Joe Shaver, a national treasure, along with
one song by Donnie Fritts, who's another treasure,
a/k/a the Alabama Leaning Man. Raw, poetic and
moving, it made the whole outlaw country stance
believable. Still, Jennings recalls the chilly
reception his outlaw approach initially received
never locked myself down to one thing. In fact,
when I started that foot and the snare and big
bass on the bottom, they said, 'That's not country,
that's rock and roll.' I'd say, 'Yeah, but it
shore does sound good.'
even tried to get me to quit doin' that by tellin'
me, the engineers, that if I did it the record
would skip on the turntable. When I first came
to Nashville, that was the attitude. There was
a way you looked, and a way you sounded, and they
had a thing called the Nashville Sound, which
was wonderful, and it fit me about like syrup
on sugar, or sump'm. It just didn't work.
When I first came to Nashville, they said, 'We
love you, don't worry about anything, you don't
need a manager, we'll take care of you.' And they
did. It was a good ole boy thing. You'd really
believe that they cared about you. They'd come
from New York and say, 'This is your year, we
love you at this label,' and they were laughing
at us, they thought we were hicks. And we were.
'Cause we were sittin' down here, gettin' four
per cent, and they were givin' ten, twelve, fifteen
per cent to the other artists, anywhere but Nashville.
Nashville was the only thing that made money for
them. And they had a good little thing goin' there.
Then me and Willie come along. They almost destroyed
me in Nashville, and were out to do it for a while.
The Nashville business people thought I was out
to destroy everything they had started. I wanted
to record with my own band, and they didn't like
that, and I wanted to spend more time on records,
and I wanted more control over 'em.
Chet Atkins produced some good albums on me. He
was President of the RCA studio. Chet and I had
trouble. Chet didn't understand me, and I didn't
understand him either. He put me with Danny Davis,
a guy who thought you should write everthing down,
and I don't know what he was doin' producin' country
records anyway. He was awful. I would go and cut
tracks, and when I'd come back, I didn't even
recognize 'em. He'd put horns and all kinds of
stuff on there.
I went out to L.A. just to try something different
and used Sonny Curtis and part of Ricky Nelson's
band, and I cut 'Lovin' Her was Easier,' Kris
Kristofferson and I had a great record on it;
everybody in the trades, Robert Hilburn, everybody
said, 'Release that, that's a smash.' And it was
a smash, it was a great record. But because I
cut it in L.A., they wouldn't release it as a
sponsored outlaw provocations went much further
than a politically incorrect studio choice. In
the mid‑seventies, when he was red‑hot,
Waylon played Memphis, and his one‑time
rhythm guitar player and road manager, Curtis
Buck, a/k/a Jerry McGill, came to the show in
drag. McGill, who had a Memphis rock and roll
band in the fifties and recorded for Sun Records,
was eluding prosecution for various federal crimes.
He had developed a problem traveling with Waylon
when they put the metal detectors in airports.
But there had been times when McGill's guns—he
normally carried three, counting the one in his
girlfriend's purse—had come in handy, like
the time the cop had McGill's boss under arrest
at the Hyatt House on Sunset Boulevard, and McGill
talked him out of it. It's a scene we'll save
for the film version. Thrown into this mix, Waylon
has admitted to using in the past up to $1,500
worth of cocaine daily.
there was Willie. Waylon told me that Willie had
been driving in Texas when he got sleepy and pulled
onto the shoulder for a nap: "The cops saw
the car, stopped to check it out, woke Willie
up, searched the car, found some pot, and arrested
him. He's the only guy I ever knew to get busted
for sleeping under the influence." Willie
is today the single most prominent figure to come
out of the outlaw movement.
Willie Nelson was born in Abbott, Texas, April
30, 1933. Abandoned by his mother when he was
six months old, he and his sister Bobbie Lee were
raised by their father's parents, who gave Willie
his first guitar, a Stella. He was six years old.
At ten he played his first paying gig, a dance.
He was a disc jockey in high school, then served
in the air force, attended Baylor University,
and worked as a door-to-door encyclopedia and
Bible salesman. In 1956 he made his first record,
"No Place For Me," paying for it himself.
During this period he married (a full‑blood
Cherokee girl who stuck a fork in his chest),
had two children, and divorced. In 1960 he sold
"Night Life" for enough money to buy
a Buick convertible and move to Nashville. There
he had quick success, with two number one hits,
performed by Patsy Cline and Ray Price, in two
years. ("Crazy" and "Hello Walls").
Though he recorded for Monument and other labels,
he remained principally known as a songwriter
until, in 1970, his house burned down and he decided
to return to Texas.
years in Nashville had caused Willie to forget
how scarce in Texas the market would be for his
songs. He was reduced to singing them himself.
His recording career began in earnest with Western
Swing aficionado Jerry Wexler's signing him to
Atlantic Records, where he cut two classic albums,
Shotgun Willie and Phases and
Stages. Critical rather than popular successes,
they paved the way for the enormous reception
given to Willie's first Columbia album, Red
Headed Stranger. It came out in 1975,
and became the first country album to go platinum—to
sell, that is, a million units. And that was enough
to start the downfall of the entire movement.
THE DEATH OF OUTLAW
Waylon's next album, Wanted! The Outlaws,
featured Willie, Tompall Glaser, and even Waylon's
wife, Jessi Colter, as outlaws. Though that wasn't
as far‑fetched as it might seem. Jessi's
real name was Miriam Johnson; her stage name came
from her great‑great‑great‑uncle,
Jesse Colter, who rode with the James gang. Her
first husband was guitarist Duane Eddy. After
her sister Sharon married Jack Clement, he and
Waylon were brothers‑in‑law, and Cowboy
Jack called Waylon Bubba.
of Waylon's best work was done with Jack Clement.
Clement started at Sun Records, producing hits
like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On"
for Jerry Lee Lewis. Both Clement and Chips Moman,
another producer with whom Waylon had artistic
and commercial success, are strongly identified
digress for a moment—but not really—it's
worth noting that the outlaw movement could never
have started in Memphis, because in Memphis there
would have been no novelty to the concept. The
music business itself in Memphis has historically
been outlaw, or at the least highly independent.
Memphis music is in large part about the point
where independence encroaches on disturbing the
peace, e.g., "Don't Step on my Blue Suede
Shoes" and the afore‑mentioned "Whole
Lotta Shakin'." Memphis studios have been
independent, so independent in fact that the characteristic
act for a Memphis studio is to change the world
and then go out of business, which is what Sun
and Stax both did.
noted, Clement worked at Sun, where he wrote hits
like "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and
"Guess Things Happen That Way" for Johnny
Cash and "It'll Be Me" for Jerry Lee.
He was fired by Sun owner Sam Phillips in 1959
for "insubordination." In 1965 Clement
opened a studio in Nashville; he would go on to
discover Charlie Pride and Don Williams, among
others, and to record his bubba Waylon.
Moman, from LaGrange, Georgia, was the first engineer
at Stax. In the sixties, Moman became co‑owner
of American Studios, also in Memphis, where he
is said to have had 117 top ten records in one
year. These include Elvis Presley's "In the
Ghetto" and "Suspicious Minds."
During his sojourn at American he would record
hits on the Box Tops, Elvis, Neil Diamond, Dusty
Springfield, and Dionne Warwick, among many others.
1985 the city of Memphis gave Moman an abandoned
fire station to use as a studio, lending him $720,000
for building improvements and recording equipment,
and freezing the property tax. During the five
years before the same politicians who had seen
him as a potential savior got around to running
him out of town, Moman produced one album, Class
of '55, a reunion of Sun alumni Johnny Cash, Jerry
Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. It went
to #87 in Billboard, nowhere near
high enough to pay back the multi‑million
advance costs. Memphis eventually padlocked their
firehouse and threw Moman in jail for a few days
until he gave back their recording equipment.
Time for a reprise of "Don't You Think This
Outlaw Bit's Got Out of Hand?"
it would seem, it was Moman who wrote (with keyboardist
Bobby Emmons) one of Waylon's biggest hits, "Luckenbach,
Texas," and produced two of Waylon's best
albums, Ol' Waylon and Black on Black.
He also produced Heroes, with Johnny and
Waylon, and Highwaymen, featuring
Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Kris.
further bit of evidence regarding the affinity
between outlaws and Memphis: Willie happened to
run into Booker T. Jones of the MGs, the Staxhouse
band, at a swimming pool in a Malibu condominium
in 1978; the resultant discussion led to one of
the most successful albums either would have,
Stardust, featuring Willie's vocals
and guitar and Booker's piano, organ, and lean,
tasteful production. Willie was already moving
out of the outlaw mode into mainstream acceptance.
all this Memphis business has to do with Outlaw
Country is this: it demonstrates the almost complete
inability of commercially‑obsessed Nashville
to produce anything unique. Two places could hardly
be more different than Memphis, the uncontested
Home of the Blues, and Nashville, the Home of
the Green. Waylon and Willie had to have help
from Memphis to do what they wanted.
Memphis multitalent Jim Dickinson has called the
music business "a self‑devouring organism
that vomits itself back up." Outlaw Country
was inevitably, in its turn, devoured, and when
it came up again, it was wearing a big hat and
singing "Achy Breaky Heart."
of outlawry, it's a crime to try to tell this
story in such a small space: No room here for
sufficient examination of even such a major country‑crime
character as Spade Cooley, the Western Swing wizard
who kicked his wife to death with his cowboy boots
while forcing his daughter, Melody, to look on.
"You're going to watch me kill her,"
he said, according to Melody's sworn testimony.
There's scarcely room to relate the classic anecdote
about the time Tammy Wynette hid the car keys
and George Jones rode the lawnmower down to the
liquor store. In other words, too much is known
about this subject to collect here.
Dalhart, who took his stage name from two Texas
towns, was originally called Marion Try Slaughter.
Born in Jefferson, Texas, to a solidly middle‑class
family, Dalhart worked in New York as an opera
singer before recording for Edison and many other
labels under a variety of pseudonyms. In 1924,
with his popularity waning, Dalhart persuaded
the Victor company to let him record the "hillbilly"
material that resurrected his career. He recorded
over 5,000 songs, sold over 75,000,000 records,
lost all his money, and died of heart failure
in 1942, while working as a nightclerk in a small
bit about Merle Haggard would be in order, too.
Haggard was born in 1937 in Oildale, California,
of Arkansan and Oklahoman roots. He grew up in
a converted railroad freight car by the Southern
Pacific tracks. "First thing I remember knowin'
was a lonesome whistle blowin' and a youngun's
dream of growin' up to ride," he wrote in
"Mama Tried." He really did, as the
song says, "[turn] twenty‑one in prison,"
though not, luckily, as the song continues, "doing
life without parole." Haggard credits his
three years in San Quentin—part of the time
a few doors down from death‑row inmate Caryl
Chessman—with turning him away from crime.
He was released in 1960.
learned to play guitar in the fifties, and in
1953 sat in with Lefty Frizzell, one of his heroes.
(Frizzell, playing a Bakersfield club called the
Rainbow Garden, asked Haggard to sing a song,
and Haggard did Jimmie Rodgers' "My Rough
and Rowdy Ways.") In the sixties Haggard
started playing bass with the underrated California
country singer Wynn Stewart, and soon began recording
on his own, first for a small label called Tally,
and then, in 1965, for Capitol Records. His first
number one hit, a year later, was "I Am a
Lonesome Fugitive," and his tenth (in four
years), the notorious right‑wing anthem
"Okie from Muskogee." Though the song
was an unprecedented success it failed to represent
Haggard's philosophy realistically. Kris Kristofferson
said, "Merle Haggard is neither a redneck
nor a racist. He just happens to be known for
the only bad song he ever wrote." Haggard
was, in fact, more a member of the counterculture
than its opponent. When country artists began
flocking to an alcohol‑and‑drug‑free
environment in Missouri, Haggard said, "Branson
and me don't warsh." What does wash with
Haggard is classic country music, as evidenced
by the three albums he recorded as tributes to
Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers.
also worth pointing out that Johnny Cash scooped
the whole outlaw ethos in 1968 with his album,
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. He
later cut an album at San Quentin, and both performances
are available on one superb Columbia CD. Cash
never did any hard time, but his rapport with
inmates could hardly have been better.
who care most about country music believe in it
almost like adherents to a religion. Musicians
in any culture tend to be introverted, intellectual
types, good at counting. But in the world of country
music they are truck drivers, railroad brakemen,
cowboys, rodeo riders, outlaws. The truth is,
some of them really have been all these things,
have had these occupations and more. These instances
of reality have talismanic significance for country
fans, because country music is so often trivial
and silly, and evidences of reality, like first‑class
saints' relics, are all the more precious in times
of spiritual drought.
along with the indisputable power of his singing,
is why George "No‑Show" Jones
could behave in completely unprofessional ways
for years and still be regarded as the greatest
voice in country music. He sang "The Poor
Chinee" and lived to tell the tale:
namee Sin‑sin, me come from China,
Biggie‑low ship, me come along here
Wind blow hard, it kicky‑up bubble‑y,
Ship make‑a China boy feel very queer
Me like‑a bowwow, very good chow chow,
Me like‑a little girl, she like me
Me come from Hong Kong, white man he come along,
Takee little gal from‑a Po' Chinee
"The Poor Chinee,"
V. Feuerbacher, E. Noack
career that survives such a song is immortal.
But George is the real thing. His father sent
George out to sing and play guitar on the streets
of Beaumont while he was still a child. George
has survived, has even conquered what Waylon has
called "the Hank Williams syndrome."
This is basically a synonym for self‑destructiveness,
which was what Hank had instead of the TB that
killed Jimmie Rodgers. It was just as real, and
just as fatal. Gram Parsons had it, too. So did
Townes Van Zandt.
asked George about alcohol, and George said, "The
biggest reason I can see, for a person drinkin'
is just that the songs are so sad, and so true."
Kind of hard to object to such patently valid
testimony. As Al Jackson, Jr., observed to me
in another connection, a few years before he was
murdered, "It's a funky world."
did I stray from the righteous path? Nobody knows
There on the outside you all can laugh; I don't
need your sympathy.
For after I pay for the liquor I sold, I'll leave
this place worth my weight in gold.
"Nobody Knows but Me,"
music is about pain, hurt, betrayal, being in
love and in jail, and it always has been. If you
hear country music that's about anything else,
beware, it's not real. "Mad Ireland hurt
you into poetry," Auden wrote in his 1939
elegy to Yeats. Our subject is the poetry of mad,
blood‑soaked, Indian country.
to Townes Van Zandt's recording of "Lonesome
Whistle" by Hank Williams and Jimmie Davis
(who became governor of Louisiana—think
he wasn't an outlaw?), I remembered seeing, nearly
thirty years ago, Gram Parsons sitting at a piano
in Los Angeles, singing the same song with Keith
Richards and Mick Jagger.
was riding number nine
Heading south from Caroline
I heard that long, lonesome whistle blow
Got in trouble, had to roam
Left my gal and left my home
I heard that long, lonesome whistle blow
I'll never see that gal of mine
Lord, I'm in Georgia doin' time
I heard that long, lonesome whistle blow
power of that connection, from Williams' Alabama
boyhood to Parsons, from Waycross, Georgia; to
Jagger and Richards, from Dartford, Kent, and
to Van Zandt, from Fort Worth, Texas, is hard
to exaggerate. It's a real spiritual connection.
Zandt, one of a number of metaphysical offspring
of Rodgers, Williams, and the outlaw tradition,
was a phenomenal talent and truly tortured soul.
"Pancho and Lefty," a sizable hit for
Nelson and Haggard, is his best‑known song.
Some of his work, like "Marie," is so
powerful that it's painful to listen to ("...the
songs are so sad, and so true").
himself a great songwriter, and Van Zandt are
both gone now. Parsons, born in 1947, died September
19, 1973; Van Zandt, born in 1944, died January
1, 1997. As to what killed them, the answer lies
in something Louis Armstrong said when someone
asked him what killed Bix Beiderbecke: "What
he died of specifically I don't know. I think
he died of everything."
There are good guys remaining in this genre,
like Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Steve
Earle; Willie and Waylon are still going strong,
though Waylon's stopped touring and is selling
off his road guitars. They both have new CDs.
Willie's, Teatro, features Parsons'
one‑time singing partner Emmylou Harris.
most hopeful sign I've come across for outlaw
country in recent years has been Bill Parker,
who was born in Indiana, raised in Texas, and
now lives in Seattle. Parker has been described
as "the illegitimate offspring of Keith Richards
and Gram Parsons."
storms and diamondbacks,
Pissants and Cadillacs
Lost poets and madmen
Salvation and sin
And the Texas heat and wind
from a song called "I‑35 Revisited."
old life gets harder every day
You think you're the only one with troubles
At least it seems that way
I'm prob'ly damned if I do
But the message must get through
I may not be an angel, but I'm
Good enough for you
part of "I May Not Be An Angel."
to Parker for the first time, I was pretty much
a goner by the time I heard the lines, from "Cruising
for the King":
grew the sideburns?
Who was the lightning rod?
Who always got the girl, 'cept
When he lost Mary Tyler Moore to God?
What'cha gonna do for Elvis
After all he's done for you?
off‑the‑wall tragicomedy of "Me
& Angelina" came as lagniappe,
a Louisiana term meaning a nice unexpected extra:
Dancin' slow to Gatemouth Brown
Me and Angelina,
Walkin' arm in arm till dawn
I shoulda never left New Orleans,
I might have been a saucier
can't imagine anything better than being a musician,"
Parker has said. I can't imagine anybody carrying
on the outlaw tradition better than Bill Parker.
of the songs on I‑35 Revisited
(Parker has done other collections of his songs,
among them Honky Haiku, Just
Another White Boy, and When Hearts Collide)
is a prayer: "(Grant me) Wisdom and the Light
to See." It's the kind of song everyone should
have the chance to hear:
need diamonds or a mansion
Got no use for no limousine
The only riches I would ask for,
Grant me wisdom and the light to see
Part the waters that I may reach you
Grant me wisdom and the light to see
also evidence that prayers are answered, even
the prayers of an outlaw.