AUSTIN — It is a strange, almost schizoid vision in the white heat of the Texas noonday sun. From the open stage we look out into the aerial blaze, then down and out across the littered remains of a scrubland meadow wherein 70,000 children loll in their bare minimum plus beer, cooler, stash, cowboy hat, and auto keys. They have cast themselves adrift into the blissful squalor of the rockfest Good Life on this proud, official state of Texas governor-designated Willie Nelson Day, and Willie is playing for them now. It is the Fourth of July. Pride is everywhere — rebel yells, Texas Lone Star State flags, Willie’s name. Everybody looks to be having a very good time. Willie’s annual picnics are infamously stoned. Nashville is horrified. Willie is 42 years old, and he is singing about the pain of an old divorce — one of his own songs — with a lyric so depressingly accurate that while the music is quite thrilling and the song a masterpiece of form, you. still have only two basic choices if you know what it’s about: face the pain or hit the intoxicants and wallow in it.
The crowd hears this musical, wound in waves across the strewn meadow, and sways along, and there is an atmosphere of cozy, communal good feeling.
There are four basic forces at work here. First is Willie Nelson, who is country music’s most profound chronicler or life’s more-than-little ups and downs, and a hippie of sorts.
Second is Austin, Texas — population 350,000, 10 per cent black, 12 per cent Mexican, 50,000 college students, bastion of liberalism in cowboyland, chief industries education and government, chief sports football, politics, and music, a damn fine place to retire to (especially if you’re under 40) — which has clasped Willie forever to its bosom, and is also, not incidentally, the most enthusiastically undiscriminating audience this side of the Vatican. Austin is to Nashville and country music in 1975 what San Francisco was to Los Angeles and pop in 1967 — a refuge and musical breeding ground: a Scene. Nobody records in Austin, nor does much business there. It is, simply a playground.
Thirdly, there is Nashville, which is everything that Austin isn’t. Though laced with a few watering holes for the “new” country scene (Waylon Jennings, Willie, Kinky Friedman, Krisanrita, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Sammi Smith et al, most noticeably Tompall and Waylon’s sanctuary hidden behind Music Row), Nashville in general is not too receptive to the sound and image of the Country Outlaws or whatever you want to call them. That’s why Willie left town after a long career of feeding songs to the “stars” while his own records (and his own identity) were never given the promotion they deserved. Like he sings in “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a song written in Nashville and addressed to an estranged lover: “I’m writing this song all about you … I’d like to get even … with you ’cause you’re leavin’ but sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”
Nashville is caught in its own mess — basically a matter wherein country country music owns the social ethic but none of the financial power, which is held by those record companies, artists, and publishing houses that are fortunate enough to be dealing in the highly lucrative business of country-pop. Country pop is anything that comes out of Nashville and makes it onto the pop charts — which means about five times the revenue you can make on a country chart entry. Country-pop is what has become known as “The Nashville Sound,” a formula for success in a cultural climate that leans towards music that is soft, instant, mellow, and catchy. Country-pop is Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo: slick and smooth but none too profound. Country-pop is Nashville’s best bet for the future. In hard times like these, it is the only course which makes sense to the company accountants. And that leaves Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and many other Fathers of Country Music — the real, old-line honest stuff — out in the cold when it comes to record-pushing time. It also offends the hell out of the Outlaws.
In country-pop Nashville, hillbilly funk bites hard on its tongue in the cause of family entertainment and those big AM markets. It also labors under the weight of a private/public double standard which has come along with the popification of real, hard country music à la Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. You can say it to your friends, but you can’t sing it so’s the public might hear. And if, perchance, you are not of that particular persuasion, you can get shut out so quickly, and with such little apparent disturbance of the waters, that likely as not you won’t know it until the money dries up and the doors begin to close in your face. You can say that in Nashville, people can’t stand to be impolite. You can say it that way, or you can say that there’s enough hypocrisy in Nashville to make a rat puke. Laid-back Nashville is dead serious.
And in Nashville, there is a terrible shortage of places to play, to get that mainline fix of live audience acceptance. The Opry lumbers on within the framework of its own identity crisis, but the real picking gets done in studios, homes, and motel rooms. In Texas, it’s different. It’s also different in style. If you’re from Texas (like Willie and Waylon and Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe Shaver) you’re automatically OK. If you’re not but would like to be, it’s like Willie sings it on his new (and brilliant). “Red Headed Stranger” album: “It’s nobody’s business where you’re going or you come from … You’re judged by the look in your eye.” Texas is the West, where intuitive mysticism rules from the bright white sky, and the unwritten laws are made to be broken with style. Nashville is like a hillbilly lawyer; Austin is more akin to the OK Corral.
That was thirdly. Fourthly, there are the Nashville Outlaws themselves, who —with the exception of Nashville’s hard core of supreme talent (George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Thompson, Conway Twitty, and the aforementioned Fathers of Country Music) — are the only country artists worth constant attention. On the sidelines of musical worthiness, you can also count the small amount of country-style talent that makes it through the L.A. record mill — currently Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris — and the few wild cards in Nashville’s deck (Mickey Newbury, Hoyt Axton, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Darrell, Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Moe Bandy, Freddy Fender, Stoney Edwards, Ray Stevens, and a few more. Then there’s Merle Haggard, who is a world unto himself and acts that way, and that’s about it.)
The Outlaws, though, are (being outlaws) a breed apart, and their place in the musical development of country music is, like their place in its current sociology, an interesting blend of past and future.
Whereas most of Nashville’s country-pop product is based on the simple, clean song structures of Hank Williams and cut with the influences of mainstream American pop, the Outlaws’ roots lie more in the direction of Jimmie Rodgers (whose blues influence was quite obvious and specific). Bob Wills (who first wed country and blues and jazz into a giddy, semi-free-form brand called Western Swing), and Elvis Presley and his cohorts at Sun Records (that’s rockabilly: country meets r&b). That’s the past. The futuristic elements of the Outlaws’ work are futuristic only insofar as they go beyond majority Nashville’s development. Mainly it’s a matter of instrumentation. recording techniques, and lyrical content. Put up against modern rock/pop music, the Outlaws’ style is distinctly “old” — more akin to Elvis end Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins than Elton John or the Rolling Stones. Put up against modern Nashville pop, their style is hard, spare, and honest. No banks of violins (they use fiddles now and again); no Jordanaires; no oceans of brass. The Outlaws go further back into country’s roots and further forward towards basic rock & roll than most country musicians dare or would want to. Theirs is a meetmg between the hard musical core of country and the more sophisticated lyrical sensibilities of modern rock.
While the most popular Nashville country-pop songs are created by a well-worn process whereby the songwriter’s mind is lit up by some everyday experience or current social theme and then, by a form of déja vu resulting in the solid-gold realization that this happens to everybody, moved to write a country song (with hook, and keep it simple), the songs chosen by the Outlaws are usually quite specifically personal and not at all facile. They reflect a complex reality hitting psychological home base on multiple levels with a subtle emotional economy. To put it more simply, the Outlaws’ ranks are filled with American poets. Put together with the music — straight c&w, blues, Tex-Mex, Western Swing, and rock & roll — the the result is music that moves you as it moves you. The Outlaws chronicle the hard edges of American life and sing the psychology of white soul, no holds barred. They do for the country what Lou Reed does for the city. The suburbs take care of themselves.
The Outlaws will take their songs from wherever they can get them (including genuine freaks like Shel Silverstein and quite a few other well-educated converts to their ranks, plus the more sophisticated Nashville mainstays like Harlan Howard), but Billy Joe Shaver, Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Alan Reynolds, Steve Young, Lee Clayton, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement are the outstanding writers of the genre. Currently, Waylon Jennings must be considered its most compelling onstage performer. Willie Nelson, however, is the one man in whom it all comes together. I’d make a case for Willie being the best songwriter working in America — bar none, in any field — at the drop of a hat. And thank God for whatever kept him alive until he hit Austin and found some kind of personal peace.
Willie Nelson is a calm, decent man, a pillar of quiet strength, a survivor. His life history reads like some appallingly accurate soap opera of the mind and his songs — especially the older ones like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t it Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Night Life,” and “Touch Me” — chronicle its progress like so many late-night barroom crises. Now Willie moves amongst a family of supportive personnel — some of whom may shoot each other occasionally, but what the hell — that’s Texas — and we are faced with the prospect (already realized in “Hands on the Wheel,” the joyous finale of the “Red Headed Stranger” album) of hearing his genius applied to both sides of the life-and-death game. Listening to “Red Headed Stranger” — the almost unbearably poignant, superbly performed tale of a cowboy who murders his sweetheart and her new lover, wanders the land in a black rage (“Don’t boss him, don’t cross him, he’s wild in his sorrow, he’s riding and hiding his pain. Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, just wait for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again”), and eventually finds happiness with new woman — you are struck by three basic thoughts. First is the fact that this particular musical masterpiece is the best cowboy movie since “High Noon.” Second is the realization that Willie and his gut-string, Spanish-style amplified Martin are wedded more comfortably and with greater emotional impact than any other musical combo that comes to mind. Third is the image of Willie’s smile.
It is dark now on the Fourth of July. Doug Sahm has floated “Mendocino” out into the crowd and made us happy that he’s still making music even if he has given up on the music business. The Pointer Sisters have sashayed through their act with stunning styles, blowing quite a number of lily-white minds. Krisanrita are hidden away in the dark someplace, having made out once again in the eternal Willie Nelson Picnic backstage Winnebago contest. The Charlie Daniels Band has provided enough boring boogie to flatten an elephant. The picnic promoter is trying to persuade his guards to let him through the stage door. And news of Jack Clement’s move from Nashville to Austin has given rise to intriguing speculations on what might happen if he gets it together to build a superior recording studio out there on the ranch. Willie, bless him, is smiling. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 15, 2020