During the 1950s and 1960s, country music experienced the commercial and artistic success known as the Nashville Sound. However, by the 1970s it was clear that the Nashville Sound was simply not working for many country artists. It was nearly impossible for new or unfamiliar artists to get any attention, and the artists that did get the producers’ attention were not allowed to write their own songs or hire their own band members.
A group of disgruntled Nashville musicians, later known as Outlaws, felt the immediate need to change the system. These musicians began a tradition of creative control and musical experimentation that remain the “bedrock musical values” of country music.
12-Song Crash Course in Outlaw Country:
1. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” // Johnny Cash // 1970
When Cash sang the song on “The Johnny Cash Show, “show executives asked him to change the wording to soften the tone. Cash refused and sang it the way it was written. If that ain’t outlaw, I don’t know what is.
2. “Whiskey River” // Willie Nelson // 1973
Perhaps one of Willie Nelson’s most famous recorded songs, “Whiskey River” feels like a prayer, a plea of sorts, to the amber liquor.
3. “Are You Sure Hank Done It this Way” // Waylon Jennings // 1975
This song, along with the entire album, was Waylon’s way of calling out all the music bullshit in Nashville. The lyrics and message hold true today, making it not only iconic, but prophetic.
4. “Mama Tried” // Merle Haggard // 1968
Sometimes “outlaw” can be literal.
5. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” // Willie Nelson //1975
Willie decided to create music his own way and decided to step out of the constrictions of Nashville. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” was what made people take notice.
6. “Desperados Waiting for a Train” // Guy Clark // 1975
The pain, longing, and nostalgia of this song bring vulnerability to a hard-lived life and, ironically, hit you harder than a train.
7. “Follow Your Arrow” // Kacey Musgraves // 2013
A female country artist who isn’t afraid to flat out speak her mind. And despite not receiving help from radio, she has steadily established her mark in Nashville by holding true to her Texas roots.
8. “Move It On Over” // Hank Williams Sr. // 1947
9. “Cocaine Blues” // Johnny Cash // 1968
The song is about cocaine and murder and was sung by Cash while playing at a prison. Oh, yeah, the inmates were roaring with approval as he sang.
10. “Family Tradition” // Hank Williams Jr. // 1979
This song took Hank Jr. from being a superstar’s son to being a superstar himself. Here he manages to channel some habits of his dad and call out Nashville all while declaring his independence from both.
11. “Take This Job and Shove It” // Johnny Paycheck // 1977
The duality of this song made it a huge outlaw hit. A hard working man wouldn’t blow off a job that needs doing, but deep down he has a fantasy that would make him a legend among his fellow colleagues.
12. “Copperhead Road” // Steve Earle // 1988
Because of its subject matter and because it’s genuine, its biggest impact has been on fans and artists of outlaw country.