An early-1970s advertisement for Nashville’s Exit/In hints at the basic premise of a new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum display: “We want everyone to get off on the music. That’s what it’s about.”
“Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s” embraces a wild, raw-edged period in country’s history that still informs the borders of the genre four decades after the movement’s raucous peak. The artifacts in the exhibit are often worn, handmade and/or odd: a moonshine still that may (or may not) have been used by Tom T. Hall, a black velvet cape worn by former Willie Nelson drummer Paul English, a stuffed armadillo associated with the Austin-based venue Armadillo World Headquarters and the wooden door from a general store in Luckenbach, Texas, that provided the cover art for Jerry Jeff Walker‘s seminal live album Viva Terlingua, just to cite a few.
The pieces in the exhibit, which opens May 25, represent a time when a group of artists centered in Austin and Nashville shook up the tenets of the business, wrestled artistic control away from the genre’s executive branch and found an earthy juncture for country, rock and folk. Its spirit still resonates today in the music of Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Jamey Johnson. Yet it hinges on a label — “outlaw” — that the ’70s progressives often fought against.
“It was a marketing term,” insists Jessi Colter, who was part of the outlaw subgenre along with husband Waylon Jennings. “It had nothing to do with how we did things or why.”
Music executive/journalist Hazel Smith, who died recently, conceived the “outlaw” name to describe a tribe of musicians who had like-minded attitudes, even if their sounds were often dissimilar. The term became widespread after RCA Nashville division head Jerry Bradley titled a 1976 project featuring Jennings, Nelson, Colter and Tompall Glaser Wanted! The Outlaws. It spawned the Jennings/Nelson duet “Good Hearted Woman” and became the first country album certified platinum by the RIAA.
“Outlaw music and armadillo music is a predecessor to what we now think of as Americana,” says Hall of Fame senior director, producer and writer Peter Cooper, “and it is just as vague and indistinct as what we now think of as Americana.”
Much of the outlaw persona hinged on an anti-establishment position. Jennings fought RCA to produce his own music at a studio not affiliated with the label. Nelson refused Columbia’s insistence that he add strings to Red Headed Stranger, a spare album that became a signature piece in the lexicon. And such singer-songwriters as Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark tackled artful subject matter with a literary approach that was unusual in a hook-driven idiom.
But a key part of the movement came from an artist and label actually working together. Bobby Bare told RCA A&R chief Chet Atkins that he could cut an album faster and cheaper by producing it himself, and Atkins gave him the go-ahead. His second project in that arrangement — Lullabys, Legends and Lies, built around songs by colorful songwriter-author-Playboy contributor Shel Silverstein — confounded the label. But it yielded hits, too, opening the gates to the outlaw strain.
“When I did that Lullabys, Legends and Lies album, Jerry Bradley told me if he’d known what I was doing, he’d have stopped it, because it’s so far away from he wanted,” recalls Bare.
Sony Legacy released a 36-track, double-disc Outlaws & Armadillos album on May 18 that pulls together music from the likes of Joe Ely, Jack Clement, Emmylou Harris and Billy Joe Shaver, providing an overview of the gritty tone and ambitious lyrical attitude at the heart of the outlaw period. The unvarnished nature of the productions is the primary distinguishing trait in the material, which otherwise lacks a defining sound.
“If there were a core sound, then it wouldn’t be an outlaw movement,” reasons Cooper. “It wouldn’t be people working outside of corporate prescriptions.”
Austin, which had an active live scene but lacked a corporate musical infrastructure, proved an apt center. The Armadillo World Headquarters opened in 1970, oddly mixing country fans, hippies and college students, and providing a home base for such acts as Kinky Friedman, Asleep at the Wheel and Michael Martin Murphey. The city’s KOKE-FM adopted a progressive country format on New Year’s Eve 1972.
Informed by the sociopolitical distrust of government in that post-Vietnam/Watergate era, the “outlaw” label helped bring a rebel hipness to the music. But it would also cause some confusion. The brand insinuated a criminal element to the uninformed, and that perception would be heightened by the emergence of former convict David Allan Coe and rabble rouser Johnny Paycheck as outlaws.
“They were kind of far out there,” says Bare. “David Allan was driving a hearse, and Paycheck was on overload. You never knew which one of him was going to show up.”
The outlaw movement hit its commercial peak 40 years ago. Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and the Waylon & Willie album hit No. 1 on their respective charts. And Jennings recorded “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got out of Hand,” a reaction to being arrested on two cocaine-related counts, both of which were later dropped. It was predictable that it would burn out as a movement — anti-establishment artists face a quandary when their music becomes the established norm — but the period left a discernible mark.
The outlaws’ ability to court college students likely set the standard for country’s current audience, which skews younger than in previous eras.
“It was a combination of timing, where country music was then and the young people coming in,” says Colter of the period’s impact. “That’s what made it such a great turning point.”
But it also serves as a beacon for artists whose vision goes against the grain. The powers that be saw the ’70s outlaws as fringe acts until their music proved its own commercial viability. But those artists would have continued in that vein even had they not achieved cultural success, a position the “Outlaws & Armadillos” exhibit supports.
“When we don’t look closely enough, we think of the outlaw bit as some kind of stance,” says Cooper. “In essence, it was not a stance. It was an artistic truth that these people were going to hold themselves to.”