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.
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.
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
As the 1970s began, you started fighting for creative
control of your records. What was your inspiration?
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
finally got full rein with Honky Tonk Heroes, right?
Tonk Heroes was the first, yes.
it the first time you were able to record with your own
band in the studio?
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.
back on it, how important was the album?
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.
the electric guitar kicks in on the first song, "Honky
Tonk Heroes," you know you're in for a ride.
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.
had to like the finished product, right?
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.
Glaser helped you produce that album. What do you think
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.
the cover of Honky Tonk Heroes with you, Billy
Joe and the other musicians on it was controversial, wasn't
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
said your favorite of your albums is the 1975 Dreaming
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.
was rock and roll affecting you at the time? Did it influence
you to grow your hair?
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
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,
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.
did you think of musicians like Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan
that were recording country from a rock background?
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.
covered a lot of his songs didn't you?
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.
Hank Williams the original outlaw?
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.
1973, you played at Max's Kansas City in New York, the
home of Lou Reed and later punk rock. What was that like?
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.
always thought Outlaw Country was close in attitude to
Punk Rock in a sense.
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.
been an outspoken critic of putting labels on music, but
didn't the term "Outlaw Country" help sell records?
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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
a lot of ways, you and the other so-called outlaws reformed
country radio. Do you think it needs reforming again?
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.
A Good Ol’ Boy:
Jennings talks about Buddy Holly
By Jayson Whitehead
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
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
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
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
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
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.