Out­law coun­try move­ment def­i­nitely in

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - News - BY JIM FAR­BER NEWS­DAY

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.”

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