Country Music Outlaw – A Sound or a Freedom?

For years everybody from fans to country music insiders have weighed in on what it means to be a country music “outlaw”.  Webster defines Outlaw as:

1a person excluded from the benefit or protection of the law
2aa lawless person or a fugitive from the law
ba person or organization under a ban or restriction
cone that is unconventional or rebellious

and Urban Dictionary is similar: OUTLAW (n.) One who lives ouitside the law, using his or her own morals or religious experience as guidance.

The root of this argument began when Hazel Smith.   She was a journalist, songwriter, publicist, radio and television personality and cookbook author. On Twitter, she described herself as country music’s “mother hen.” No matter the medium, her effervescent personality shone.

In the early 1970s, while working as a publicist at the Glaser Brothers’ “Hillbilly Central” office/studio on 19th Avenue S., she began using the term “outlaw music” to describe the songs of country renegades like Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

“Now, it doesn’t say this in mine or any other dictionary I’ve seen, but it said that outlaw meant virtually living on the outside of the written law,” Smith told The Nashville Scene in 1997. “It just made sense to me, because Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins were doing marvelous music, but this was another step in another direction.” (Source: Hazel Smith USA Today)

Many have pointed out (contrary to Smith) that “Outlaw Country” was more than a sound it was politics as well.

“Traditional” country music, many say, has been killed by bro-country, the artists bringing influences from other genres into their music and the radio programmers who play those songs. In debates about the state of the genre, these outlaw country artists are heralded as badass bastions of the good old days. Men and (a few) women who were doing right by Nashville. The kind of artists we need more of these days.

However, “it’s always a bit more complicated than people realize,” says Michael Gray, co-curator of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s exhibit. This modern-day interpretation of the phrase “outlaw” mistakes the movement as a sound rather than a quest for artistic freedom.  (Source The Boot article Rethinking Outlaw Country: A Movement About Artistic Freedom, Not Sound by Angela Stefano)

Recently, the outlaw country term has sprung to life again regarding artist Lil Nas X who has faced controversy when his hit “Old Town Road”   earned the rare distinction of appearing on both Billboard‘s country singles chart and its R&B/hip-hop singles chart. Then it was dropped from the country ranking on the grounds that the sound of the song didn’t qualify it as country.  Many folks agreed with the Billboard decision, feeling it didn’t embody what traditional or even modern country music should consist of  to be considered “country.”  Other folks feel these are antiquated ways of looking at music -and there were many artists along the way that pushed the genre ahead  that weren’t always seen as “country” at the time.  Yet others can’t let go of the heroes of years past – and acknowledge that time marches on and all things evolve – even sound.

Most notably, it seems good to remember that we are all human.   When we are touched by and move to good music – that is the point.  We can all relate on the same playing field of love found and lost, death and breakups being hard and a nice beat conjuring a part of ourselves that can’t be put in a box.

To watch the latest controversial outlaw country performance Click Here to watch “Old Town Road” with Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus featuring Keith Urban

To read more on the subject check these sources:

https://tasteofcountry.com/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-debat-race-country-music/

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-lil-nas-x-old-town-road-nashville-country-20190501-story.html