Revitalizes Country Music Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The release of Wanted! The Outlaws in early 1976 brought mainstream recognition to a brand of country music at once more progressive and more authentically rooted than the Nashville norm.

Summary of Event

With the January, 1976, release of the album Wanted! The Outlaws on RCA Records, the talents of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson became nationally recognized. The album went platinum, selling more than one million copies—a first for a country album. The record crossed over to the pop charts and reached number ten on the Billboard magazine charts, the music industry’s standard reference. A new breed of “progressive” or “outlaw” country music had arrived, and the corporate music industry in Nashville, country music’s capital, had to take notice. Music;country Country music Music;country Country music Jennings, Waylon Nelson, Willie Atkins, Chet Kristofferson, Kris Bare, Bobby Cash, Johnny

In part, the album represented the music industry’s co-optation of a movement within country music that had been gestating for quite some time. Most immediately obvious to country music buyers was the fact that all the cuts on the album were reissues. Wanted! The Outlaws, in fact, was a promotional package meant to capitalize on the ferment within country music circles and in the Nashville scene itself.

The album’s tracks included Jennings’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” and “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Nelson’s “Me and Paul” and “Yesterday’s Wine,” and duets by Jennings and Nelson, such as “Good Hearted Woman” and “Heaven or Hell.” Tracks by less prominent outlaw musicians such as Tompall Glaser Glaser, Tompall were also included. The repackaged album featured the stripped-down style and roots country the younger rebel songwriters and performers of the 1970’s preferred over the assembly-line crossover product being turned out for pop appeal by the Nashville country mainstream.

Back in 1972, when Jennings had recorded a tune called “Ladies Love Outlaws,” some journalists had picked up on the idea of cementing the newer forces in country music together with the concept of the artists’ rebellion against record company politics and control of their music and recordings releases. In reality, the so-called outlaws were not a coherent group but rather a creation of record-company publicists and press agents who sensed—correctly, as it turned out—that something was blowing in the wind in the increasingly homogenized Nashville music industry. Even the liner notes to Wanted! The Outlaws recognized this kind of promotion; in the notes, Chet Flippo, Flippo, Chet an associate editor of the hip music magazine Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone (magazine) conferred his approval. He wrote of the “progressive” music of Jennings and Nelson, their struggle over the years to control their recording careers in the face of record-company intransigence, and their bold enunciation of basic country themes, a harking back to country music’s earlier and more rural roots. According to Flippo, the outlaws were rejecting country music’s accommodation to the bland sounds of mainstream pop music in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Much of the outlaw rebellion stemmed from Nashville’s long-term reaction to the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950’s. Trying to win back the younger audience attracted to such stars as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry, Nashville producers began to produce a blander type of country in which fiddles and steel guitars were omitted. Strings, woodwinds, and backing choruses were added so that country could sound more like standard pop music. Singers who had nasal voices or who wanted to stick to traditional sounds were put on hold. Many viewed this music as compromised or watered-down, but from the late 1950’s on, the trend accelerated. The “Nashville sound” came to mean a well-polished studio sound created by a cadre of musicians who were heard on record after record. Among the chief architects of this production-line sound were Decca Records’ Owen Bradley Bradley, Owen and RCA Records’ Chet Atkins. Atkins, a brilliant guitarist himself, turned to producing most of RCA’s country acts and in the process homogenized the sound. While the Nashville sound and the highly centralized corporate system it spawned brought success in the marketplace, other segments of the music scene in Nashville and elsewhere were undergoing a sea change.

Outlaw country music artists Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings in New York City in February, 1978.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The advent of rockabilly Rockabilly music Music;rockabilly —or country rock and roll—from Memphis with the success of Presley, Lewis, Carl Perkins, Cash, Orbison, and others actually represented the thrust of deep South and Southwest musical fusions into country music. The area from Memphis south and west into Texas had always been rich in musical traditions, most notably black blues and rhythm and blues. Nashville, on the Cumberland Plateau in middle Tennessee, had been a more conservative bastion of mountain music and older styles until the 1940’s, when the influence of Southwest “western swing” and Texas-bred honky-tonk styles, with electric guitars, a heavy bass, and drums, started to shake up the old order. In the mid-1950’s, new fusions of black and white music again forced their way into country music. “Country boogie,” or rockabilly, was hard for the Nashville establishment to accept even then, and, with the exception of some token copying of the Memphis sound, Nashville opted for the smoother approach typified by the development of the Nashville sound, with its overtures to the larger pop music audience.

The guitar-and-drum-based rockabilly stream could not be held in check in the long run, however. In west Texas, where Waylon Jennings and his friend Buddy Holly grew up, the sounds and styles of rockabilly were more readily accepted. In the late 1950’s, Jennings had played bass in Holly’s band. With the tragic death of Holly in a plane crash in February, 1959, Jennings started a solo career as a singer, and he arrived in Nashville to record for RCA in 1965. Chet Atkins tried to incorporate Jennings into the Nashville-sound system in the hope that some of his rough Texas edges could be smoothed over and that he could be marketed as a “folk-country” artist to cash in on the fad for folklike versions of pop music then in vogue. While Atkins’s effort was on one level strictly a marketing ploy, it did reveal that Jennings was different and had succeeded in developing a fusion of folk-derived musical influences.

Jennings was determined not to be taken over by the neat studio system Atkins and others had perfected. He wanted his own road band as his backup in the studio, whereas RCA wanted him to record with its cadre of studio men. In the early 1970’s, Jennings forced a renegotiation of his contract by enlisting the services of a tough manager, and he won the right to supervise his own sessions.

Two other forces played a part. One was Texan Willie Nelson. Like Jennings, Nelson had been frustrated by the control over his music exerted by Nashville when he went there in the 1960’s. Successful as a songwriter, he found his eclectic style—nourished, like Jennings’s, in the fusion of musical styles common in Texas—unacceptable when he recorded his own songs. Moving to Austin, Texas, in 1972, he suddenly found a new live audience waiting. Many young fans were interested in returning to country roots, and there was a burgeoning interest in bringing rock influences into the music. A group of country songwriters influenced by the more experimental rock and folk-inspired music of Bob Dylan Dylan, Bob and Gram Parsons Parsons, Gram were determined to go their own way. Nelson organized a series of open-air music festivals in Texas to highlight this music and his own singing and songwriting. He invited kindred spirits, including Jennings, to participate, and a movement was born.

At the same time, Nashville was being invaded by a new breed of songwriters who reflected the same influences. Kris Kristofferson is the best example. Well-educated and eclectic, Kristofferson opposed the rigid Nashville system. Encouraged by Johnny Cash, Kristofferson got his songs recorded and fought for the freedom to bring stronger lyric material into country music. Young rebels gathered around independent producers such as Tompall Glaser and demanded a say. Unconventional in behavior and dress and determined to buck the system, they finally had broken through by 1976.


The years that followed saw the media impact of the rebellion and saw the more authentic, less-produced brand of country music win a new pop audience. Willie Nelson became a guru for those wanting an open style of country in which rock and folklike influences were acceptable. Nelson adopted a counterculture dress style, shunned the sequined costumes and supper-club dress of other country artists, and struck a chord among millions. His charismatic personality went over well on television; in live shows, his laid-back personality and informal music making carried the day. He wrote concept albums, covered old pop songs such as “Stardust,” and sold in markets not usually favorable to a country performer. His albums and his duets with Jennings and others sold to pop audiences. As an actor in films, he managed to spread his fame even wider. Both he and Jennings stressed stripped-down instrumentation and the new songs being turned out by writers such as Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, and others who favored new, unhackneyed themes.

A new sophistication in songwriting had invaded Nashville. Singer-songwriters such as Bobby Bare and Tom T. Hall exposed society’s hypocrisies and handled such issues as adultery and social problems in a manner not common during the heyday of the Nashville sound, when courting pop success had meant making blander music.

Nelson and Jennings took their material from where they wanted and were able to convince a large public that country music did not have to be well-mannered pap. Jennings, dressed in black and letting his hair grow long, conveyed an unconventional stance and a deep conviction in his songs that was a fresh breeze in the business. As Cash and Bare had done earlier, Jennings avoided many of the trappings of stardom and went his own way. By expanding the styles and repertoire of country music, Nelson and Jennings in their different ways managed in the 1970’s and 1980’s to return much of country music to its real roots. They honored their creative predecessors such as Hank Williams and absorbed songs and styles outside the rigid boundaries of mainstream, pop-oriented country. Authentic country artists, they could take rock and even popular songs and infuse them with a country feel, a kind of process endemic to the music from the start. Music;country Country music

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bane, Michael. The Outlaws: Revolution in Country Music. New York: Doubleday, 1978. A good overview of the outlaw scene, with many photographs. While not scholarly, Bane does capture the spirit of the movement. Popular in intent, the book does not have an index or discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denisoff, R. Serge. Waylon: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983. Denisoff, a former rock journalist, knows his subject. This always readable and entertaining book conveys well the whole scene and origins of the music. Illustrated, with notes and sources, index, and discography by Jennings expert John L. Smith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">George-Warren, Holly, and Patricia Romanowski, eds. The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. 3d ed. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 2001. Provides informative brief recaps of the careers of Jennings and Nelson. Helpful in placing the outlaw movement in a broader musical context. Includes discographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malone, Bill C. Country Music, U.S.A. 2d rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. This scholarly study of country music presents a useful background on the history of the music as well as incisive discussion of the outlaw movement. Includes illustrations, annotated bibliography, brief discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, Willie, with Bud Sharke. Willie: An Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Nelson’s own story provides useful insight to the sources of his own rebellion and style. Firsthand account helps to explain the reasons for Nelson’s and Jennings’s dissatisfaction. Includes illustrations and index.

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