Hands Up!
By Stanley Booth

From Gadfly November 1998


"There 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.

Jimmie 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 Family. 

Jesse 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."

Mr. 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 way."

The 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. 

Outlaw 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.

I 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 approvingly.

Nashville 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.

The 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.

In 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 in Nashville:

I 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.'

They 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 single.

Jennings' 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.

Then 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.

Ten 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.

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.

Some 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 with Memphis.

To 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.

As 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.

Chips 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.

In 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?"

Inevitably, 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.

A 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.

What 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.

The 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."

Speaking 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.

Vernon 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 Connecticut hotel.

A 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.

Haggard 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.

It's 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.

Those 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.

This, 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:

My 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

Any 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.

Someone 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."

Why did I stray from the righteous path? Nobody knows but me.
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,"
Rodgers, McWilliams

This 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.

Listening 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.

I 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

The 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.

Van 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").

Parsons, 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.

The 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."

Dust storms and diamondbacks,
Pissants and Cadillacs
Lost poets and madmen
Salvation and sin
And the Texas heat and wind

That's from a song called "I‑35 Revisited."

This 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

That's part of "I May Not Be An Angel."

Listening to Parker for the first time, I was pretty much a goner by the time I heard the lines, from "Cruising for the King":

Who 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?

The off‑the‑wall tragicomedy of "Me & Angelina" came as lagniappe, a Louisiana term meaning a nice unexpected extra:

Me and Angelina,
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

"I 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.

One 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:

Don't 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

It's also evidence that prayers are answered, even the prayers of an outlaw.