Outlaw country movement definitely in
In country music today, outlaws are in.
Witness the ascent of Chris Stapleton. Last year, the long- haired, bearded Nashville outsider took both the album and song of the year prizes at the Academy of Country Music Awards for his debut solo album, “Traveller.” This year, his “From a Room: Vol. 1,” enjoyed the largest opening sales week for a country album in a year and a half, a feat last achieved by the mainstream Nashville star Luke Bryan.
Earlier this year, another rebel soul, Sturgill Simpson, landed the Grammy for best country albumand was nominated for that show’s peak prize, album of the year, right next to stars like Adele and Beyoncé. In early July, Nashville outlier Jason Isbell debuted in the top spot on Billboard’s country album chart with his latest set, ironically titled “The Nashville Sound.”
Small wonder many observers think “outlaw country” is having a moment — again. “Finally we’re able to see these kinds of artists achieving what they always should have achieved,” said Brigitte London, editor of Outlaw Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the subgenre.
“Country music is getting new energy from these artists,” said musician Lenny Kaye, who ghost- wrote the autobiography of one of the original outlawstars, Waylon Jennings, and who plays in Patti Smith’s band. “They’ve giving a new voice to this generation.”
Joining them are Jamey Johnson ( who has wracked up gold and platinumalbums in the last few years), Whitey Morgan, Luke Combs, Nikki Lane, Margo Price and others.
Such stars recall the spirit and attitude of outlaw’s original wave from the ’ 70s, which included Jennings, Willie Nelson, David Allen Coe, Kris Kristopherson and Jessi Colter.
So, what ties these vintage stars to their modern counterparts?
“They’re rejecting the clean- shaven, pretty boy, cowboyhat- wearing people that preceded them,” said country music historianRobert K. Oermann. “Both physically, and musically, they’re offering something that’s much more honest.”
At the same time, Oermann points out that the original outlaws far more accurately embodied the word. “They were drug- taking crazies who were outside the law in their lifestyle as well as their musical choices,” he said. By contrast, “you won’t find anyone sweeter than Chris Stapleton.”
For that reason, Oermann prefers to call this latestwave “rebels” rather than “outlaws,” while Kaye favors the term“renegades.” “The new outlaws are more respectful,” London said. “They’ve discovered that you can’t drink and drug yourself to death.”
Moreover, today’s rebels tend to be on indie labels, while the pioneers had major label contracts, allowing them to rage against the Nashville machine from the inside. Nelson was a wellestablished starwhen he proposed radically shifting his style on “Red Headed Stranger,” a 1975 work which greatly advanced the outlawethos. Nelson’s label, Columbia, strongly discouraged the new direction. Nelson’s defiance paid off when “Stranger” went No. 1. The sound he created stripped away the lush productions of Music Row, drawing instead on the raucousness of then ascendant Southern rock. “Stars likeWillie andWaylon wanted the same energy, presentation and, honestly, the same financial rewards, as rock and roll was offering,” Kaye said.
The shift proved so popular that a 1976 album titled “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring Nelson, Jennings, Colter and Tompall Glaser, became the first country album to be certified platinum.
The current rebel wave built its momentum slowly over the past decade, much in the way that college rock of the ’ 80s exploded into the grunge revolution in the ’ 90s. Oermann says country radio missed the boat on its rise. “It shows how out of touch country radio has become with the music people actually want to buy, as opposed to what they will passively listen to,” he said.
At first, country radio wrote Stapleton off. Even today, such stations rarely play Simpson. Oermann credits the spread of the movement to “a new era of music delivery and consumption. People are finding out about newmusic not through radio but on NPR, social media, or in the press.”
The widened exposure has created more opportunities for women, who have been shut out of country radio for years, unless they’re Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood. The surge in outlaws has also encouraged older artists to come back to the fold. Steve Earle, who brought the rebel spirit in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s, has revived it for his new album under the winking title “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.”
Ironically, these latest outlaws are, in a sense, revivalists, reasserting country’s roots at a point where its mainstream has strayed so far, it often sounds like ’ 80s corporate rock, with big drumsand squealing guitars. “The best artists are returning the music to its heart and soul,” Kaye said. “They’re reminding us of why people sing songs in the first place.”