Outlaw Country Boy's Tension and Hope
I was born in 1964 in Fort Worth, Texas. But, that didn’t make me a “60s child”. I doubt many five-year-olds knew much about sex, drugs, rock and roll, or Vietnam in 1969. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t exposed to a lot of the 60s. It was in 1969 when I attended my first live concert. My parents took me to SMU (Southern Methodist University) to see Jerry Jeff Walker - whose most famous and most covered song was “Mr. Bojangles”. The song was about a guy Jerry Jeff met in jail in New Orleans. Thinking back, I realize now how this night unlocked a lifelong passion in me for live music and stories - stories from the heart that not everyone is willing to share. Stories of tension and relief, pain and hope. Stories of how messed up we all are and anyone’s best guess on how to deal with it.
Outlaw Country became a music genre and took off in the late 60s. I think it was in rebellion to the music coming out of Nashville - that at the time, was referred to as the Nashville Sound. Nashville country was the “old school” traditional country performers you might see on the TV show back then called “Hee Haw” - like maybe Glen Campbell or Buck Owens. Glen Campbell sang songs like “Rhinestone Cowboy” about wanting to be “where the lights are shining on me” or “Galveston” about a girl being left behind there as he goes off to war - “…I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston”. The Outlaw Country singers would have none of that. Waylon and Willie were singing “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and “Cowboys like smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings and little warm puppies and children and girls of the night”. It was real life - grit, hard advice, and suffering.
One of the best, and most covered, Outlaw Country songs of all time , was “Pancho and Lefty” written by Townes Van Zandt. It’s one of those priceless and timeless songs that could be about at least a dozen, or infinite, different things. Townes got asked about it a lot and never seemed to give the same answer. Some say it was about two outlaws and how one, Lefty, turned the other one, Pancho, in to the Mexican Federales. Others say it was an autobiography of living on the road. And still others say it was about how Judas (Lefty) betrayed Jesus (Pancho) by turning him over to Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (the Federales). Most agree that Lefty turned Pancho in to the authorities based on the lyrics “The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go, there ain’t nobody knows.” However you interpret it, it is not about losing your girlfriend or wife or some other sappy tail coming out of Nashville at the time. To me, it’s a story about hard, rough, real life - but many times with no hope.
Around the same time, popular music was also changing with the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones writing their own songs and refusing to conform. Looking back, I guess Outlaw Country wasn’t really rebellion for me since my dad liked it. Now that I think about it, it was our father and son bond. Our own form of rock and roll rebellion. Who knows how I would have turned out had he taken me to Woodstock that year instead.
I remember a lot of that night at SMU as if it was yesterday. In addition to my parents and me, several of the other Philosophy professors in my dad’s department at TCU (Texas Christian University) and their wives were seated with us. One of the most fascinating parts of the night was intermission. Waiting for the next set, I remember the audience throwing green glow sticks all around me. But even cooler was that everyone was making paper airplanes with their folded paper programs and trying to fly them all the way to the stage. Yes, back then they handed out paper programs! If one made it to the stage from the balcony, where we were seated, the audience would roar with cheers and applause. The professor who was seated next to me, Dr. Simpson, showed me how to make an airplane out of the program that would fly the farthest. It was magical. Instead of it being a traditionally shaped airplane with flat wings, it was a large circle or loop, wider on one side than the other, that would just float through the air. I was in awe when his “floater plane” made it all the way from the balcony to the stage and the room exploded. He let me try the next one, but it just sputtered a little three foot vertical circle in front of me and landed on a bald guy’s head in the next row up - which of course for me was just as awesome as making it all the way to the stage. I think the grown-ups had to apologize for me and luckily no fights broke out over it.
A few years later, our family went to the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Worth to see David Allen Coe. He became most famous for “Take This Job and Shove It” and “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” . He had also spent lots of time in jail - and man did he have stories to tell! Supposedly he used to live in a hearse parked in front of the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville - imagine that! Instead of Coe being the one drunk at this show, it was a guy sitting in the row in front of us (and I think most of the audience was drunk too). Since I wasn’t yet even a teenager, I just assumed this guy was a grown-up. He was making my dad really mad by standing up in front of us and spilling beer all over us and everyone around us. Punches were never thrown but it sure seemed close. Someone near us went and got a cop and the next thing I knew, the guy was being escorted out. And oddly enough, while grocery shopping with my mom the following week at our local Piggly Wiggly, the guy was our bag boy bagging our groceries. My fantasies of him being an outlaw in jail and becoming a great songwriter were busted.
My involvement in Outlaw Country, other than tagging along with my parents now and then, mostly consisted of sitting on our marble living room floor with my dad’s turntable and all of his vinyl albums from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allen Coe, Johnny Cash, Michael Martin Murphy, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Fromholz, and many others - while longing to someday see them perform at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin (and to even move there some day which I finally did in 1995). I wore those records out by listening to them over and over. I doubt there’s a Willie Nelson album recorded before 1980 to which I can’t still recite all of the lyrics from memory. My two favorite Willie albums are Red Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages. Willie practically raised me through that turntable. Lines like “you can’t hang a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse” would mesmerize me and make me have recurring dreams about having breakfast with Willie someday where I could ask him countless questions about all of his wisdom. I know its a bit odd, but another one of my favorites of his was “Hello Walls” - “Hello Walls. How’d things go for you today?” It taught me that you can talk to things besides people as if they were people - although I doubt that was his intention.
My musical tastes expanded and took several detours over the years - through folk, rock, and even punk but it is always came back to the stories. I love stories. We’re wired for stories - tension and relief. The tension in the verses - both musically and lyrically - that take us on journeys and touch our emotions - back to the relief - the familiar choruses that comfort or unify us. It dawned on me that we’ve been wired this way since the beginning. The whole Bible is one giant story of tension and relief - the fall of humanity and God’s reconciling us back to himself ending with his final restoration of all of creation. We’re part of that story, part of the struggle - so we write and sing about it - whether we realize it or not.
It seems that the tension shared in all songs is universal. Whether it’s Lucille leaving Waylon, Willie’s woman trying to steal his horse, Mick Jagger not getting any satisfaction, The Beatles having a hard day’s night, or even King David crying out in Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” - it’s all the same mess. Our relationships with each other, with our Creator, and with creation have all been a mess since the first humans chose to be autonomous. The real difference across all genres, time periods, and songs is not the tension but where we find the relief.
Outlaw Country’s relief was everything from getting back “to the basics of love” to “kicking hippies asses and raising hell.” They make good stories - some heart wrenching and some just plain fun. But our best relief - and our ultimate hope - will eventually come with a loud voice from the throne saying, “…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4 ESV)