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Radio: Outlaw Country

Radio: Outlaw Country

by Linda Ryan  |  July 20, 2012

Radio: Outlaw Country

By the 1970s, producers in Nashville were running the show, happily relying on their proven formula for churning out hit after fabricated hit. They treated country music like pop music, adding lush strings and big-sounding backing vocals to every song, watering down the "country" element in the process. "The Nashville Sound," as it became known, tempered the raw, honky-tonk vibe that helped make country one of the most honest, exciting genres around, turning singers into the kind of stylized vocalists the older generation favored. By contrast, the younger generation -- many of whom had become jaded with the war in Vietnam, the post-Summer of Love come-down and the government in general -- wanted an honest sound and lyrics that spoke to them.

In response to this watering down or sterilization of the music he loved, Waylon Jennings flat out rebelled and demanded creative control over his recordings. Eventually, his label relented. Jennings replaced professional session musicians -- favored by producers -- with his much rawer road band, and chose some weighty songs from such shoot-from-the-hip songwriters as Billy Joe Shaver and Steve Young. Jennings' spare neo-cowboy sound fit perfectly with his burly voice, and the public ate it up -- both classic honky-tonk fans and new generations of longhairs were attracted to Jennings' beefy sound, biker image and no-nonsense attitude. And certainly, songs about alcohol, drugs and the hard-working men who abused them spoke plainly to the younger generation, who helped propel 1973's Lonesome, On'ry and Mean into the country Top 10.

Meanwhile, Jennings' partner in crime, Willie Nelson, had also had enough of the Nashville machine, and actually decided to retire from music. He left the city in the early '70s and moved back to Texas. Once in Austin, however, Nelson became enamored by the back-to-basics approach to country music the local hippie scene was turning out. Inspired, Nelson sought a new record deal, with the firm idea of how he wanted his next album to sound. That slow-burning, back-to-basics cowboy style came to fruition with the release of Red Headed Stranger in 1975.

The outlaw movement culminated in a 1976 compilation album Wanted! The Outlaws that featured previously released songs from Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter. The album hit a sweet spot with the public at large, making it the first country album to achieve platinum status.

Decades later, alt-country and Americana would be nowhere without the pioneering work of these country upstarts. And certainly such new country artists as Steve Earle, Eric Church, Jamey Johnson and The Pistol Annies have brought an outlaw-inspired, warts-and-all rawness back into country music. Napster's Outlaw Country radio puts the spotlight on the original outlaw "stars" and the writers who penned such endearing and enduring songs. We also shine a light on some of the artists the movement helped inspire. On this channel, raw and honest songs about drinking, cheating, breaking up and doing time take center stage -- not glossy production tricks. Hit play and let the rebellion begin!