The Story of Outlaw Country in 33 Songs
You didn’t think I’d go missing that easily, did you? Just don’t think I’ve made much progress on my primary assignment. (I did, however, add another volume to the stack, which may not be the optimal way to reduce the size of the task.)
Luckily, my friends at Pitchfork stood ready to help with this recently posted (October 2018) look at the roots of, well, roots music. The story, such as it is, is really a collection of 33 song reviews, each of which establishes the singer’s place and the reasons for the song’s inclusion. Chalk one up for the editors, it’s a novel twist on a list since it serves essentially the same purpose, but removes the ‘quality rating’ that comes with enumeration.
That hardly reduces the opportunity to argue, though. I mean, the bigger arguments are always about who or what is included or excluded. The ranking is almost incidental.
Allow me to start, then, with an observation: the editors decided at the outset to use an expanded time frame . ‘Outlaw country’ was more or less a phenomena of and reaction to Nashville‘s pursuit of pop crossover success. That pursuit began in the late 1950s and spawned any number of hits that stand up to both the output of the Brill Building and the test of time.
Those crossover songs range from classics like”I Fall to Pieces” and “For the Good Times” to period pieces like “Rose Garden” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” to disposable radio-friendly fare like “I Love a Rainy Night.” Inventive producers like Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins drove the mainstream business and invented stars like Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton and Glenn Campbell.
Along the way, country music, that most conservative of genres, lost sight of its own history. Gone were the jazz inflected dance tunes of Bob Wills. Paid homage to more than played on the radio was Hank Williams. Where tradition held sway it was due to geographic isolation; Bakersfield and Appalachia never went pop.
In Nashville, some folks tried to straddle the divide. Willie Nelson, who penned “Crazy,” was, among other things, a songwriter looking for a hit. Johnny Cash may have rockabilly roots, but by the late 1960s he hosted a variety show on CBS. They were not alone, but they were a minority, ultimately labelled Outlaw Country. Whether that label refers to extra-legal or just norm-skirting behaviors remains debatable.
By the mid-1970s, the outlaw set were themselves cashing in on their outsider status which, though a bit countercultural in origin, had even infiltrated the heartland. Kris Kristofferson was starring in first-run movies. Waylon Jennings provided the song that opened a hit television show. Even Townes van Zandt-penned songs charted. Heck, toss in Merle Haggard and you could even have an Outlaw supergroup.
The editors could have stopped right there. It’s where the story usually ends and no one would fault them for it. For some, reason, though, the small eruption of rootsier artists in the mid-1980s–and then the follow-on activity that became the alt country scene–were included. So the first records from Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams are here, as are a smattering of records from more recent artists like Miranda Lambert and Jason Isbell.
I’m not sure that was the best editorial decision.
The songs listed from 1986 on represent about a quarter of the list, yet span a time period almost twice as long as the first 20-something numbers do. And while I enjoyed seeing Hayes Carrll here, how is Dwight Yoakam missing? If pissing people off is part of the criteria, Dwight should be mentioned just for ticking off Sharon Stone alone. The man really is a hillbilly and much more Bakersfield than Nashville; there’s a reason he burst on the scene in California and not Tennessee.
And what of Joe Ely? I’m not buying the notion that he’s included because The Flatlanders are. Joe wasn’t invited to tour with The Clash because of an album that no one had heard. It’s because he was the real deal, punking up the country precincts of Austin-town
I suppose somewhere the editors have an alt-country article lurking, which would explain why those bands are under-represented here. That just makes the inclusion of some acts the more questionable. Miranda Lambert? I have the Kerosene record because I wanted to understand what the fuss was about, and I just don’t see it. And much as I love Emmylou, I wonder if she’s here deservedly. She’s not exactly looking for trouble palling around with Dolly and la Ronstadt.
Lists always do this to me. I wind up in a dither over things others can live with. I’m genuinely happy to see Billy Joe Shaver here, but some mention ought to have been made of the albums he made with his son, Eddy, in the 1990s. A picker’s picker, Eddy left too soon for the usual bad reasons. Billy Joe keeps writing and plumbing the depths of human torment which seems pretty outlaw to me.
Like the song says, I could go for hours and I probably will, but I’ll spare you and get back to the books. And later, when I hit the road, I’ll find something from this list or my library, drop the windows, crank the volume and have my own small visit with freedom.
Which is what the outlaw thing was really all about anyway.
How could I not provide a play list? Here’s a bunch–songs named above, songs that should be heard, songs by the outlaws and the missing ones.