Outlaw Music: What It Is....What It Means
Funny how as time slips on by certain styles of music draw labels and
certain genres draw fans. It feels at times as if the tattered collective
conscience is ripping itself apart at the seams, as if all of humanity in a
unified voice is screaming for individuality. Ours being a capitalistic
society, those screams could not have gone unnoticed for long. As the word went back a couple of '49's ago, there's gold in them thar hills. So record companies sprang up, replete with suits and A&R types. In that same prehistoric period, the earliest ancestors of behemoths like Clear Channel first slithered onto shore; unfortunately, they chose to bring the
primordial muck along and base their new civilization on it. And as has
always been the case in the annals of mankind, what was pure and unfiltered became just another revenue stream.
It wasn't always thus. For a time, there were only the artists and their
music. That thread, thankfully, goes all the way back to the dawn of human existence. But as with the medieval courts which turned troubadours into jesters, the big labels and big radio soon turned artists into clones. This is how we come to find ourselves in a 21st century populated with McGraws, Chesneys, Underwoods and SheDaisies. Hell, it's how we woke up one day to find celebrities who are famous just for being famous. And it's our fault. We, the Great Unwashed (with apologies to the incomparable Blackie Sherrod, whose line I just stole), fell for the gambit. We, collectively, funded the careers of performers - not artists, but performers - who sold us pap about Indian outlaws and sexy tractors. We decided cleavage on a jewel case was more important than the words inscribed upon the disc inside. In other words, we forgot about the real beauty backed by substance that Loretta and Tammy shared with us.
Now in a spirit of fairness and civil discourse, we do have to admit that
the pendulum of country music has historically swung regularly and widely.
Hank begat Lefty, Lefty begat Buck, Buck begat Ray, Ray begat Dolly, and so on. Somewhere in all that hodgepodge, historically inaccurate as it may be but spot-on for illustrative purposes, Willie managed to spring up
fully-formed and make friends with Waylon and the boys. In time, as the
Music Row machine wrung every last penny out of the countrypolitan thang, what we now think of as the Outlaw movement was born. It was in that cauldron that names like Jerry Jeff Walker, B.W. Stevenson, Blaze Foley, Townes van Zandt, Guy Clark, and David Allan Coe became familiar.
The scales of popularity were anything but even-handed in their disbursement of acclaim, but these artists and others like them provided the backbone and substance of what would become an enduring theme in music. For some of those who caught the lightning in a bottle and rode the wave to legendary status, the schtick eventually lost allure. Waylon himself once famously asked if we didn't think this outlaw thing had done got out of hand. For others, some of whom to this day still prowl with guitar in hand on the seamy outskirts of greatness, the mission never lost its shine.
Part of the reason for that, it's safe to assume, is that for many artists the mission that those of us on the dark side of the mics often point to is not in fact a mission at all. Instead, it's just an artist with something welling up so strong inside that it has to bust out. Think "Alien" with three chords and the truth. Chuckle for a second, and then realize that when the song truly matters, it often comes out in as much or more of a violent fashion than the little plastic monster did on the silver screen. When it matters, what you get is the unvarnished truth from an artist gripped in the tentacles of a realization so brilliantly blinding, or so cripplingly clear and painful, that it puts all of life on hold until it is delivered. Therein lies the difference, plain and simple, between a song like "Last Thing I Needed (First Thing This
Morning)" and, say, "Real Good Man."
Outlaw music these days is, simply put, the music and the lyrics that will not allow you to turn away. It's the stuff that says you're gonna need to
do just a bit more than dance around in your tight jeans and get the soccer
moms wet. It's bigger than any genre, as proven by offerings from artists as diverse as Chris Wall, Joe Croker, and My Morning Jacket. Stuart Adamson had a handle on a lot of the same insights that Kinky Friedman used to sing about. Billy Don Burns and Tony Joe White have been slinging truth around with a vengeance for years, and over in the North Carolina mountains Malcolm Holcombe's doing the same thing today. The styles vary, and there's something for every musical palate.
If hardcore country fused with rock 'n roll is your thing, David Allan is
still out there telling the blistered truth without giving a damn who likes
it or don't. Find yourself a copy of his recently released record with demos from the '70s, and compare its contents to the introspective masterpieces he's still churning out today. If you're more staid and traditional, you've still got Merle and in his footsteps there are artists like Rodney Hayden and Brian Burns. Prefer screaming guitars and chicken-fried truth? The Drive-By Truckers, Slobberbone and Cattletruck are what you need. (Yes, we know Slobberbone broke up and Brent Best is trying to reinvent hisself as John Lennon or somesuch with the Drams. We skipped that band on purpose. Leave us alone.). Want pure-dee homegrown originality and an utter sense of who-gives-a-dang? Find Unknown Hinson. Quickly.
So where does all of this leave us? We'll make it simple for you. Outlaw
music is that which defies the rulings of the money-grubbing elite and
forces itself into the collective consciousness for judgment on its own merit. It may be a Tim O'Brien channeling the history of American music's
Appalachian roots and maintaining our link back to the miseries of feudal
lands our ancestors got seasick to escape. It may be a Lost John Casner out there telling stories about the legends he worked with, or a Panama Red still writing songs and picking as effortlessly as he did for Kinky and
Billy Joe Shaver. It's most definitely Jackson Taylor. And Roger Clyne.
Odds are outlaw music is somewhere in your town right now. In one dive bar or another, as Chris Wall once wrote, some sorry picker's trying to figure where it all went wrong. You want the real thing, go find that guy. Or girl. They'll embellish your life more richly than you might imagine, and
by making yourself available to that you'll help them heal the wounds that
come from giving birth to something with so much substance.
Or you can just let mainstream Top 40 diminish you while you shimmy and pray to the gods of love that maybe this'll be the night you get lucky. Hey,
Carrie's gonna dump that quarterback sooner or later, right?