Outlaw Country needs a new name

What do you do when a genre label no longer means what it originally meant?
Tyler Childers In Concert - Charlotte, NC
Tyler Childers In Concert - Charlotte, NC / Jeff Hahne/GettyImages

Fifty years ago, when Willie Nelson released his Shotgun Willie album, the first track opened with “Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear – Bitin’ on a bullet and pullin’ out all of his hair.” This isn’t exactly what RCA Victor, the venerable label that had been releasing Willie’s music since 1965, wanted to hear. They wanted something more along the lines of Charlie Rich, who had not only the biggest country album of the year but also some of the biggest crossover hits. The opening track of Rich’s monster Behind Closed Doors began with a sweet piano underneath Charlie’s charming pronouncement “My baby makes me proud – Lord don’t she make me proud.”

Rich, who after 20-some years of kicking around the music scene with minimal success (RCA actually had him at one point and had no clue what to do with him), eventually gave himself over to the hitmaking stylings of “Countrypolitan” producer Billy Sherrill, and found the success he had been seeking. I have no problem with what Charlie Rich did. He was good at it, and that album is spot-on countrypolitan perfection. But Willie didn’t want to do it that way.

And so outlaw country was born.

It wasn’t just Willie of course. There was Waylon… and the boys… and the entire city of Austin… well – that’s a story for another time. Today’s story is not about 1973 – it’s about today. And it attempts to solve this simple dilemma:

Outlaw Country no longer means what it used to

What do you do when the name of a movement ceases to have any relevance?

Please note that I’m not saying what passes for outlaw country isn’t still great. I love that music as much as any other genre. I’m just saying it ain’t outlaw.  Not in the original sense of the word.

The early outlaws – Willie, Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker – the list goes on – were not primarily concerned with writing songs about sitting around in your underwear or smoking weed. They weren’t primarily concerned with bringing back the blues and using electric guitars. Those were merely byproducts of what they truly wanted. They wanted the freedom to do whatever the hell they wanted. That’s what Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams did before the Nashville hit machine came to dominate the entire industry. That desire is what caused Waylon Jennings to ask “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” on his classic of the same name.

That song has been recorded by many of the stars of outlaw country, from Steve Earle to Robert Earl Keen, from Hank’s own son to Jack Ingram. Ingram’s version of especially interesting. It’s a blistering live track recorded at the second incarnation of Gilly’s back about twenty ago. And it was released digitally by Big Machine Records in 2019. If you don’t know Big Machine, it’s Scott Borchetta (of American Idol and Taylor Swift fame) and Toby Keith (of Toby Keith fame). It’s affiliated with Universal and under the umbrella of Korean giant Hybe. It’s about as corporate as you can get. It’s not exactly the way Hank done it.

The Outlaw Country movement has produced some of the best music, regardless of genre, in America this century. But that music hasn’t been truly outlaw for a long time. I date its demise to 2004, the year Little Steven launched his Sirius Outlaw Country channel on the world. That is just about my favorite channel on satellite radio. But it needs a new name.

As much as I may like Chris Stapleton or Tyler Childers, I can’t fight the feeling that I am hearing them a little too much to the exclusion of others when I tune into Outlaw Country. Stapleton’s latest album was released by Mercury Nashville, an imprint of Universal. Childers’ latest came from his own Hickman Holler, now in partnership with … wait for it … RCA. The same RCA that kicked Willie Nelson out of its club fifty years ago. (RCA also released Jack Ingram’s last album, created in partnership with Miranda Lambert.)

You see, back in 1973, outlaw country kind of shocked the country music industry – not because it called them out for being overly processed and inauthentic – but because it made money by calling by calling out. And thus, the last fifty years have seen the slow and steady absorption of outlaw into the country mainstream.

In 2023, as the entire industry finds itself at a crossroads, having a very public debate about what does and doesn’t qualify as country, and about what you can and can’t sing about in a “country” song, I think we could use a little more of that Shotgun Willie attitude. Trust me, it’s out there. You just probably aren’t hearing it unless you go digging.

For a start, check Those Poor Bastards. From right around the time of Sirius’ Outlaw Country debut, this mysterious duo has been churning out their own brand of traditional country blended with a healthy portion of death metal. If that sounds odd, it is. But it is also a strangely affecting and necessary voice. The very first track on their first EP, which ran all of 21 seconds, spelled out the problem as they saw it back in 2005:

“I’m warning you friends – This ain’t the sanitized – Safe and clean as the neighborhood mall – Country B******t you’re used to – NO, this is country music as it was meant to be – Raw and Bleeding”

Those Poor Bastards are worthy of the name outlaw. Tyler Childers is worthy of a ton of success and plaudits galore. But I’m not sure about the name. (Actually, you might make the case that Jason Aldean is more deserving of the Outlaw label, in its original sense, today than any other popular artist. But that’s an argument for another day when I feel like getting into a fight.)

So, since I am suggesting we strip away the label “outlaw” from modern outlaw country, I feel it is incumbent on me to suggest alternatives.

To wit, here are my top five choices to replace “outlaw country:”

Rowdy country – many of the artists pride themselves on their rowdiness

Ex-con country – this is a tribute Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and David Allen Coe – and all the other outlaw icons who had run-ins with the law

Highway country – in honor of the original Highwaymen, who helped put outlaw country on the map, as well as a subtle homage to one of outlaw country’s favorite subjects – getting high

D-Crim country – in case the Highway thing was too subtle. It has that modern feel, don’t you think?

And my own personal favorite…

Repro country – a play on “retro” but with the added advantage of proudly embracing their roots in reprobate behavior

The choice is yours, America.

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