Are There Any More Real Cowboys?
By Jayson Whitehead
From Gadfly November 1998

When RCA released Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, it certified the rebel stature of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Largely consisting of songs by the two, it was the first country album to achieve platinum status. Willie and Waylon would be forever linked as the two leading members of Outlaw Country. Both were born in Texas and struggled to find their niche in Nashville during the 60s. Both fought for creative freedom and achieved it. Their best work altered not only country music but affected many artists outside the genre. Willie's albums from the early to mid-70s are some of the best ever released. Shotgun Willie, Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger are a musical trio that could just about represent country all by themselves. And Waylon's are no lower in stature. Beginning with and including the bare Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973 (containing nine songs penned by Billy Joe Shaver), he delivered four straight masterpieces with This Time, Ramblin' Man and Dreaming My Dreams.

As important as the music was to their outlaw reputation, their image as long-haired bearded cowboys often took centerstage. Waylon, despite his soothing Roy Orbison voice and cordial demeanor, seemed like a real old-fashioned cowboy (surely he rode a horse to the studio). Willie, on the other hand, with his hodge-podge of Southern Baptist, Native American and 60s Astrology philosophies came off like a space prophet. With one foot in the past, the other somewhere in the future, the outlaws were becoming figures as mythical and celebrated as Billy the Kid or Wild Bill Hickock. Adding to this, Willie Nelson's Annual Fourth of July Picnic first held in 1973 in Dripping Springs, Texas, instantly became a unique cultural event. Rednecks (the South) and longhairs (the hippies), known for their hostility to each other (see the last scene of Easy Rider), were standing side by side to hear this mix of cosmic country and redneck rock.

Today, outlaw country music and the struggle to get it made stand out as shining examples of artistic integrity. And with the stagnant state of most current music, their finest achievements are measuring sticks of musical honesty. Are there any more real cowboys? Willie and Waylon are living proof.

Gadfly: As the 1970s began, you started fighting for creative control of your records. What was your inspiration?

Waylon: I had tried some of the best producers in the world and I just never got what I wanted—the music was not what I could hear in my mind. Now, whether that was insanity or what, I don't know for sure. But I thought I had a right to try it my way at least one time. I finally got a deal where I could just hand them the finished product, but I had to use their studios and their engineers. I agreed to that and then realized I had made a mistake. And they said, "But you agreed to it." And I said, "Yeah, but I lied." I think anything is legal when it comes to your music. Music is a part of you and if you walk away from the studio, an audience or anything, and you haven't done it the way you felt it, it's like being a prostitute or something.

You finally got full rein with Honky Tonk Heroes, right?

Honky Tonk Heroes was the first, yes.

Was it the first time you were able to record with your own band in the studio?

Yeah, I had periodically used one or two of my band, but that was the one where I used my band only. And it was a lot of fun. That was the album when I realized I was in trouble. The engineers and everybody were calling upstairs and telling on me and the head of RCA would check downstairs to see if everything was going alright. And sure enough, it wasn't. It was going the way I wanted it. But that was the first one that I didn't allow anybody to tell me what to do.

Looking back on it, how important was the album?

It was the one that turned the corner, I think, with country music. It was so loose. It was the perfect thing that the Nashville sound wasn't. I tried to make it sound like some old cowboys in the barn playing music, and that's basically what came out. Some of the songs only had three instruments on them. I tried to get as much of a live sound as I could without it being actually live. We had a great time doing it, and I was even proud of Billy Joe Shaver. He didn't know what I was doing, and he was about ready to fight me.

When the electric guitar kicks in on the first song, "Honky Tonk Heroes," you know you're in for a ride.

The song wasn't written that way. It was written in a slow tempo all the way through. I changed that and Billy Joe was about to go crazy. He didn't know what I was doing because I was doing the tracks and arrangements without the vocals. I had laryngitis and I wasn't singing it. I was just putting them down where I'd know what I was going to do when I did get my voice back.

He had to like the finished product, right?

Oh, yeah. We've been friends all these years and he understands now what I had in mind and he likes it. If you're going to be an interpreter, you have to take a song and make it sound like you wrote it. My wife [Jessi Colter] taught me that. I did one of her songs, took it home and she said, "That's pretty good." Then I tried it again, and she said, "Well, that's good," and I went back and took it down to the drums and did everything on it. She said, "Well, that's still good," and one night I was just kind of relaxed and tired, and I put the song on and just sang it once, took it home and she said, "Now that sounds like you wrote it. That sounds like your song. You made it yours." That was my big lesson from her, and I've followed it every since. That was back in the early 70s.

Tompall Glaser helped you produce that album. What do you think of him?

Tompall is crazy. If I could have sung like anybody, it would have probably been Tompall. I love Tompall's singing and I love his writing. He's crazy. He's the one who's really nuts of all of us.

Even the cover of Honky Tonk Heroes with you, Billy Joe and the other musicians on it was controversial, wasn't it?

They didn't like anything about it. We looked like a bunch of old funky people, which we were. I didn't claim to be anything else. We didn't hang out with the "in" crowd in Nashville at all. We never did fit in, you know. We wore our hair too long, and we wore Levis. I wore clothes and still do today that I'm comfortable in. I don't ask anybody, and if they don't like what I'm wearing, then I'll go home. I'm not pretty, and I never was. I don't want to be pretty. It's just the way I look and if they can't accept that, then they've got a problem. When I came here, they had a stock way they thought a country singer ought to look, with the rhinestones, the good haircut and what have you. They didn't like the way I looked at all.

You've said your favorite of your albums is the 1975 Dreaming My Dreams.

Yeah, that's one of my favorites. The way I judge my albums is if I can listen all the way through without skipping a song, then it's a well done album. I think Jack Clement is a genius, and a great producer. We were in tune and had a good time doing it. Nobody was bothering us because I finally got completely away from the studios over at RCA. I did it at another studio and used my own musicians and the people I wanted to put with it. I just handed them a completely finished product.

How was rock and roll affecting you at the time? Did it influence you to grow your hair?

Oh, no. That didn't have anything to do with it. I liked the freedom of rock & roll and I thought rock & roll was smart and country music was stupid. Rock and roll always had the groove. First and most important you get the groove, and then everything seems to fall in place after that. In fact, they even do the tracks before they write the songs, which sounds funny to some people. But I can understand what they're doing. My son does rock and roll now and that's the way he writes songs. I don't think I've done that enough to a point like they do it. Country music always depends on a singer to have all the feelings. But in rock, the rhythm could speed up and slow down and they didn't seem to worry about it. But that's the main thing I got from rock and roll—not the hair or the Levis. They tried to look more like us as far as looks are concerned.

Why were artists like you and Willie Nelson able to appeal to the counterculture and the hippies so well? There was quite a divide between the country world and the hippies, wasn't there?

There was a little in-between. The hippies didn't like the Nashville sound. They liked some of the early stuff. I think the honesty of it is what they liked. I've always said that when rock & roll self-destructs, then the true country stuff comes back and it has a chance to do things. When we did these festivals, all those kids with the long hair and everything loved Ernest Tubb and Bill Monroe. They loved the great ones, the leaders and the forerunners but the ones with the suits and ties, they weren't too crazy about that.

What did you think of musicians like Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan that were recording country from a rock background?

You know, I've always heard that a lot of country and a lot of rock background is only a beat apart. The song writing is the same. The structure is the same. My stuff was in between country and rock at that time. Gram Parsons was a great country singer. He was never accepted as such. He was a good country writer. I loved that group [the Flying Burrito Brothers]. Me and him were friends. He would come out when I'd come to LA, and he said to me one time, "I just took what you did and went one step farther," and that's exactly what he was doing—which I really couldn't do at the time. He had his own thing. Dylan, I loved his early stuff.

You covered a lot of his songs didn't you?

Some of his songs are just great. I may have had something to do with him getting going. I found his album in a $1 bin, the one that had "Blowin' in the Wind" [The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan]. I took it out to a station, a 5,000 watter in Phoenix, and gave it to this disc jockey and he played that thing all night long every night. It had to help a little. Of course, he was bound to happen. You know, Dylan is just a phenomenon. There's never going to be another one like him again. He made it in spite of everything. In spite of himself mostly.

Was Hank Williams the original outlaw?

I guess so. When he came to Nashville, I think he'd already been drunk for twenty years. I don't think he could help himself. I think he was an alcoholic. We've all had our crosses to bear and, in some ways, he felt sorry for himself. He had a wonderful friend, Fred Rose, who took things that were really scattered and got them back into focus for him. Rose helped him straighten out those songs. I saw some of the original lyrics and they were quite a ways from what they wound up being. Audrey [Hank's wife] and Hank Jr. let me see the scrapbook they kept on him and there are some wild looking things in there where he wrote through lines and across lines. He was one of my great inspirations. He just had a great feel.

In 1973, you played at Max's Kansas City in New York, the home of Lou Reed and later punk rock. What was that like?

Well, I looked at those people with the spangles, earrings and all that stuff, and I told them, "We do country music. That's what we call it and we do a little rock with it. And if you like it I wish you'd tell somebody. But if you don't like it, and you ever come to Nashville, Tennessee, and say that, we'll kick your ass." That got us off on the right foot. I've always been able to relate to just about anything, so I'm not going to put anybody down for anything. If they want to dress like that... I ain't piercing my ear. I'm too big a coward. But that ain't got nothing to do with nothing.

I've always thought Outlaw Country was close in attitude to Punk Rock in a sense.

The reason we started hitting and things started coming together is because of the truth in what we were doing. We didn't do anything that we couldn't back up, and I think everybody saw that. When I look at a song or a record, I want it to be the truth That's very important. Nowadays with the new country things, they will sing anything for a hit. I'm not really into that. The song is what mattered when we came along. We didn't do bad material.

You've been an outspoken critic of putting labels on music, but didn't the term "Outlaw Country" help sell records?

Let me tell you about that. They wanted to put out this album and call it Wanted: The Outlaws. And I said, "No, that's silly, it's stupid." I had an album out called Ladies Love Outlaws and they had already tagged me with the term. I didn't think it was right because there was a group called the Outlaws at that time. They were pretty hot and I said we would be infringing on them and I argued with them. But if I had it to do over again, I would've probably argued with them until I came within about an inch of changing their mind and then I would have quit. Because it did work good, remarkably actually. The term "outlaw" means someone living outside the working system which is exactly what we were.

In 1978, you wrote the song "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand." Were you expressing your frustration with the tag?

No. They tried to bust me for drugs. That song is just the whole story of when they came bounding in the back door and all that stuff. It was just a tongue in cheek kind of thing saying, "Don't you all think you're getting a little bit serious about this shit?" That's what it was about. It was about a drug bust and it wasn't protesting anything.

Your song lyrics seem to be pretty confessional—for instance, a song like "I Ain't Living Long Like This." You include a lot of references to your lifestyle at the time, your addiction to cocaine, etc.

People around me were staying up five to six days a week. I had the good sense to know when I was out of control. I'd usually try to go somewhere and go to bed at home. Jessi stood by me through the whole thing, and I knew what I was doing was not normal. Fifteen hundred dollars a day of that stuff, and staying up all night and all day trying to record all the time, and having to do everything all over again because when you sober up you see it wasn't good after all. The thing is, I did realize it, but I didn't think I could ever get off of it. I was so addicted and then when I did get off, I realized what I was doing. What I was doing was destroying my wife Jessi's and my son Shooter's lives. They'd say, "You're going to kill yourself," and I'd say, "Well, it's my life." But you have to go live in a cave if you're going to go by that because you don't have the right to destroy other people.

You recently released a new album, Closing in on the Fire. With over 70 albums under your belt, what are you hoping to achieve musically now?

I don't have to achieve anything. I'm out to have a good time. I'm out to try to do the best I can with what I've got as long as there are people out there who want to hear me sing. I'm not out to set the world on fire. If they said, "Well, you can be the hottest thing in the world," I'd say, "I don't want to," because I've had all I want of that. I've had a great life. Now I can retire and I don't have to do nothing. I like riding, and I enjoy recording and I still have new ideas, things that have never been done before and if people are interested in me doing them, I will try them. I'm 61 and I still think very young when it comes to music. I enjoy music and I enjoy recording.

In a lot of ways, you and the other so-called outlaws reformed country radio. Do you think it needs reforming again?

I can't tell you who's singing now on these country stations. They're produced by about six or seven guys in this town, and if they don't do it, it doesn't get played. You know, they have an age barrier. If you're over 45, they won't play you. They're going to have to raise that barrier because Vince Gill and some of the others are getting on up there. I don't know if they play fat people or not. They might have to lose a lot of weight, too. I don't know what all that has to do with music. If it's good, it's good. If it's not, it's not. One time Johnny Cash and Willie decided we were going to sue them. I said, "No, I don't want to sue nobody," but we probably could have won. That's discrimination, you know.

Related Story:
Just A Good Ol’ Boy:
Waylon Jennings talks about Buddy Holly
By Jayson Whitehead

February ‘99


Gadfly: A defining moment for both Outlaw Country and the South was your embrace of the counterculture. The South was traditionally in opposition to the 60s generation. What was behind your growing your hair long, or publicly avowing marijuana? That was pretty revolutionary for a country singer, wasn't it?

Willie: I don't know. It might have been. I moved back to Texas after my house in Nashville burned. I sort of got mixed up with the music scene down there which was growing. There were guys down there already doing it like Leon Payne, Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt in Austin. All the great writers down there. So I just joined forces with these guys, really. As far as the hair—when I was a kid I had long hair, jeans and T-shirts. I noticed the crowd started dressing that way. It seemed to be acceptable not to dress up all the time and it was comfortable, so why not?

Did you take a lot of heat for that?

Oh, I probably did. No one ever said anything to me personally. I'm sure there was a lot of criticism back then and maybe still. But I didn't worry about it.

When you had semi-retired for awhile at the end of the 60s, there had to be a defining moment when you decided to try to make it at recording again. What happened?

Well, my house burning was a good excuse to move back to Texas. I kind of went back there to retire. I felt I could retire easily in Texas because I could still play as much as I wanted to. I wanted to quit trying to travel around the world with a band because it just wasn't financially smart. I decided to just play Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Oklahoma, and that's basically what I did until the Red Headed Stranger album and then that spread us around the country some more.

Although you're often cast in rebellion against Nashville, did your experience there help you later on?

I learned a lot in Nashville about the business and political sides of it—all sides of it, really. I'm not sorry that I lived there for ten years. I feel that there were a lot of good times there.

What do you think of the Outlaw Country tag? Was it more or less just a marketing ploy?

Well, since it became such a marketing tool I decided to take advantage of it. There's the Outlaw Music Channel. I was able to pick up some tapes one time of Porter and Dolly and others who are on that channel. It's not a bad thing when you look at it for what it really means.

Do you see yourself and the others like Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver as "outlaws"?

I see myself and others as insisting sometimes on doing things our own way. Since we wrote the music and played it publicly we pretty much knew what we wanted when we went in the studio. A lot of times you don't have people who agree with you. So you have to do it your own way.

One thing you're known for is the idea of the concept album. What pushed you towards doing an album with a storyline?

[One of] the first times I did that was on Phases and Stages. On Atlantic.

Was that with Jerry Wexler?

Yeah. I don't know why I did that. I was just writing and I said, "Why not?" The Red Headed Stranger was a concept album. Tougher Than Leather's a concept album. And a few others.

Your new album Teatro sounds different from your 1996 album Spirit—much more upbeat. Why the change?

It was kind of a natural evolution, I thought. Some of the new songs that are on there—"I'll Take You With Me Everywhere I Go," "I've Loved You All Over the World" and "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces"—is stuff I felt I wanted to do kind of like Spirit. But when you add all the other rhythms and things to it, then it's something else entirely different. That's what happens when you turn it over to somebody like Daniel Lanois and you say, "Okay, you take this and you add what you know to it." That's what he did. I thought he was extraordinary. He has a good phonebook. He has a good ear.

How did you decide to have Emmylou Harris on so many tracks?

Well, I would have her on every song I've sung if I had my choice. We were talking about backup singers and there's only one gal that could really do it. Lanois had already done an album with her [Wrecking Ball]. He knew how good she was so it didn't take much convincing.

She got her first break with Gram Parsons. What did you think of him? He was definitely an outlaw, wasn't he?

Yeah, he was coming at it from another direction.

One recent occurrence that seemed to symbolize the outlaw spirit and bring many of you back into the spotlight was Johnny Cash's ad in Billboard magazine lambasting country radio for not playing his music. Do you think country music is in as bad a state as Cash does?

Yeah, I think it is. I think it's going through a cycle. I've seen it go through cycles before. I've been listening to radio for a long time. It's always been difficult to like everything you hear, you know? You'll hear some great one even from a long time ago, but everything everybody did wasn't great. Today it's the same thing. You can't hit a home run every time you get up, even when you're programming your own station. I used to do that. I enjoyed taking a Lefty Frizzell song and a Patty Page song and then getting Frank Sinatra and then Hank Williams and mixing it all together. I think that'll happen again.

Who were the big influences on your music?

Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, Floyd Tillman, Leon Payne.

Do you like anybody today?

Well, a lot of those guys are still around.

One element of your music is its use of all genres. Sometimes music becomes segregated—for example, R&B is only supposed to be for blacks or rock for whites. Is this a problem as far as you're concerned?

It's not a problem for me. I don't try to separate them. I just play songs and if they happen to fall into that category, then so be it. But I don't really start out saying, "I'm going to do so many blues songs tonight or I'm going to do this or I'm going to do that."

A dominant trait of much of your music is a certain feeling of melancholy. Where does that come from?

I don't know. It's always been there as far as I know. I've always loved those ballads and sad songs. Of course, I like the up-tempo ones and the funny ones, too. And the people like the ballads—songs like "Blue Eyes Cryin' In the Rain" and "Always On My Mind." They never get old.

Speaking of old, are you excited about the new millennium and the year 2000?

Well, you know, it almost slipped up on me.