Op-Ed: In 2020, Outlaw Country Isn’t What You Think It Is
The idea of outlaw country -- music that turned away from the "Nashville sound" style of production in the 1970s -- feels inextricably tied to a set of artists from that era (including the movement's frontrunners, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson) and their sonic descendents. A current Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country Music's Roaring '70s even revisits that time period, displaying memorabilia, articles of clothing, instruments and more items endemic to the era.
It's easy to tie "outlaw country" to a specific, free-wheeling sound exemplified by the artists whose heyday gave rise to the term, and to think of its inheritants as the modern-day traditionalists who pay homage to the likes of Nelson and Jennings, both in the kind of music they make and in the way they look, talk and dress. When modern country listeners today think of present-day outlaws, many think of artists including Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter's son Shooter, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson and Eric Church. They think of renegades who buck radio trends such as "bro country" and snap tracks in favor of a more organic sound, with an emphasis on incorporating and spotlighting real instruments.
The truth, however, might be a little more theoretical.
While there is certainly a particular sound tied to the '70s outlaws' style, that sound does not inherently define outlaw country.
"Before the outlaw movement, a lot of the artists were in the passenger seat; it was the producer and the record label picking songs, picking which musicians would be on which recordings, which producer, which studio," Michael Gray, co-curator of the Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit, told The Boot in 2018. "The outlaws had the courage to not just be stars, but to dig deep inside themselves and present their artistry to the world."
In other words, while there is certainly a particular sound tied to the '70s outlaws' style, that sound does not inherently define outlaw country. Rather, the crux of the movement was the artists' rebellion from industry norms.
"That's really what the thrust of [outlaw country] is," added Gray, "is these artists fighting for their creative freedom."
The artists of today who were influenced by the '70s outlaws can -- and often do -- continue to prioritize creative freedom in addition to taking musical cues from their outlaw predecessors. But because many listeners define outlaw country by its sonic qualities, they miss other, equally exciting, artists who could easily find a place under the outlaw umbrella, even if their music doesn't sound anything like Nelson's or Kristofferson's.
In fact, Kristofferson himself shrugged off the outlaw brand in an interview with Texas filmmaker Sean Geadelmann for the 2013 documentary They Called Us Outlaws: "I think we went our own way and spoke our own words because we believed in them. And believed in that's what we were set down on the planet to do," he explained at the time (quote via CMT).
"We weren't worried about commerciality. Because it didn't make any difference if we were on the Hit Parade or whether we were making a lot of money," Kristofferson added. "It was whether we were doing the good work ... writing soulful songs."
Flash forward to 2020, and the debate about what makes a country song authentic is as stark and essential as ever. In June, for example, Eric Church released "Stick That in Your Country Song," a rallying cry against what many see as the empty sentiments that occupy too large a space in country radio's Top 40, that spotlights underpaid teachers, protests and violence in American cities and soldiers ravaged by war.
Church is often heralded as the frontrunner of the modern outlaws, a mainstream success who's never been shy about voicing his criticisms of the music industry or his commitment to releasing soulful, substantive music. He also embodies plenty of the original outlaw aesthetic, with a focus on real instruments, guitar-forward tracks and a southern-tinged rock 'n' roll inflection to his country music.
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But the definition of outlaw country doesn't boil down to sonic quality; it boils down to message and a spirit of rebelling against the music industry's status quo. From that standpoint, "Stick That in Your Country Song"'s outlaw leanings are matched -- if not exceeded -- by two songs released by Mickey Guyton in 2020: "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" and "Black Like Me."
Both tracks speak to Guyton's experience as a Black woman in America, recounting the bigotry she has faced both in her life and in the music industry due to her gender and the color of her skin. Guyton is not a newcomer to country music -- she put our her first EP in 2014, and notched her first charting single the following year -- but these new songs mark a new direction for the artist, who explained to NPR in June that she felt that she had only recently started to tap into her truth as a songwriter.
"I did Nashville the Nashville way for so long, and I had seen so many women do Nashville the Nashville way, with very little results, and that's kind of how I felt within my own life of being a black woman," she recalled, explaining how her fight for recognition helped inspire "Black Like Me."
"Country music praises Johnny Cash, praises Dolly Parton, praises all of these old-school country artists. And guess what? The common denominator with these greats is they were singing about their truth, and they were not afraid to speak up and call a spade a spade," Guyton continued. "You can't praise Johnny Cash and then tell us, in 2020, to keep our mouths shut."
In the interview, Guyton goes on to say that she kept her opinions to herself earlier in her career because she was trying to gain traction at country radio. But like many other women -- especially women of color -- radio wouldn't give her a chance. So, as Kristofferson did four decades before her, Guyton decided that writing songs that fed her soul was more important than chasing commercial success.
In other words, she became an outlaw.
Long before she put out "Black Like Me" and "What Are You Gonna Tell Her?" Guyton got used to being criticized for being "too pop." Her piano-forward ballads and pristine vocals sound nothing like what most modern listeners associate with the outlaw country sound. But that doesn't mean she should be overlooked as one of today's leading country renegades.
In 2020, as the country faces another push in the fight toward equality, the implications of outlaw country are especially poignant.
In his book, Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville, author Michael Streissguth traces a connection between the '70s outlaws' heyday and the Civil Rights movement that directly preceded it. Streissguth begins the book by outlining how the integration of school systems and lunch counter sit-ins touched Nashville during the late '50s and 1960, just a few years before Kristofferson, Jennings and Nelson each began to make their way to Music City.
While the artists who would become outlaw legends weren't directly related to the protests going on across the U.S., they were galvanized by a spirit of change and progressivism, Streissguth argues. That charge soon expanded into a desire to achieve creative control in their musical careers.
In 2020, as the country faces another push in the fight toward equality, the implications of outlaw country are especially poignant. Guyton felt compelled to release "Black Like Me," a song she'd recorded several months prior, when she learned about the May death of 46-year-old Black man George Floyd at the hands of white police officer Derek Chauvin.
As with the Civil Rights movement in the '60s, the need to push back against the status quo is bubbling up to the surface, both in the world at large and in country music. The genre is due for a new generation of outlaws; in fact, many of those artists have already arrived.
In her solo work, Rhiannon Giddens is a champion of bluegrass revival, finding new ways to highlight and use the banjo. Together, she and her Our Native Daughters bandmates recast some of country music's most fabled stories, but change their scripts to spotlight Black women's experiences. Cam and Kacey Musgraves, meanwhile, braid dazzling, kaleidoscopic strands of futurism into their classic country music, more or less bypassing country radio altogether on their respective roads to career success and taking staunch stands against gender norms and sexism in the industry.
Orville Peck is a student of cowboy culture who takes on the mythology of the American West, applying it to his own experiences as a queer man. Coupled with the theatrical mystique of his persona, which includes a face-obscuring, fringed leather mask, Peck's music is both a challenge and a love letter to longstanding country tropes.
While it's tempting, as a country listener, to look to artists who sound like the '70s outlaws to carry on their legacy, a sonic category has never been the truest definition of the sub-genre. Any artist that prioritizes artistic freedom over commercial viability can be an outlaw artist -- and from that standpoint, outlaw country is far from a closed chapter in music history.
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