Outlaw Country Boy
Being born in 1964 didn’t make me a “child of the sixties” since that was only when I was between the ages of zero and five. I doubt many five-year-olds knew much about sex, drugs, rock and roll, or Vietnam in 1969. However, that was the year of my first live concert. My parents took me to Dallas to SMU (Southern Methodist University) one night to see Jerry Jeff Walker (whose most famous and most covered song was “Mr. Bojangles” which was about a guy he met in jail in New Orleans). That night unlocked a life-long passion in me for live music and stories - stories from the heart that not everyone is willing to share - stories of how messed up we all are - and everyone’s best guess on how to deal with it. That night, I was immediately a child of the “Outlaw Country” movement.
Outlaw country was something that took off in the late 60’s. I think it was in rebellion to the music of the time coming out of Nashville (or what 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”. But the outlaw country singers would have none of that. A lot of these guys were literally in and out of jail. Waylon and Willie were singing “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” and “Cowboys like smoky old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings and little warm puppies and children and girls of the night”. Raw living!
One of the best outlaw country songs of all time (and one of the most covered), 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 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 Jesus (Pancho) and Judas (Lefty). But most agree that Lefty turned Pancho in based on the line “The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio. Where he got the bread to go, There ain’t nobody knows.” But however you interpret it, it is not about losing your girlfriend or wife or some other sappy tail coming out of Nashville. It was hard rough raw living - or at least that’s what they all convinced me of. I wasn’t even a teenager so I was still easily impressed.
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. I guess outlaw country wasn’t really rebellion for me since my dad liked it, but I think it was our own form of rock and roll rebellion together. One thing was for sure - most of it was happening in Austin and I knew I would have to live there one day (which I finally did about twenty years later in 1995).
I remember a lot of that night at SMU as if it was yesterday. Jerry Jeff was wobbling and fell down on stage. I didn’t know what being drunk meant at age five, but I could tell something wasn’t quite right. But one of the most fascinating parts of the night was intermission (which may have just been polite-speak for waiting for Jerry Jeff to sober up). The audience was throwing green glow sticks all around me. But even cooler was everyone making paper airplanes with their folded paper programs and trying to fly them all the way to the stage. The man next to me was a Philosophy professor with my dad and was showing me how to make the best possible airplane that would fly the farthest. It was magical. Instead of being a traditional shape with flat wings, it was a large circle or loop, wider on one side than the other, that would just float through the air. His made it all the way from the balcony to the stage and received applause from almost the entire auditorium. Then it was my turn and I didn’t do quite so well. I put the finished loop between my first two fingers in my right hand, just like he taught me, and drew my arm back like I was about to throw a baseball. I gave it all I had, not realizing that it wasn’t about power, and boom - 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 since I was wrapped up in the coolest experience since being born.
A few years later, our family went to 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” . Outlaw country became very real to me because Coe had spent lots of time in jail too - and man did he have stories to tell. He supposedly even used to live in a hearse parked in front of the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Instead of him being the one drunk this time, 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 but I did know he was making my dad really mad by standing up in front of us and spilling beer all over us. Punches were never thrown but it sure seemed close. The next thing I knew, the guy was being escorted out by the cops. The best part of the story was that while grocery shopping with my mom the following week at our local Piggly Wiggly, the guy was our bag boy bagging our groceries. Outlaws were everywhere!
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 others - while longing to someday see them perform at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin. I wore them out (which was back when we all had time to spend hours listening the same record 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 favorites are Red Headed Stranger and Phases and Stages. Willie practically raised me and taught me such wisdom as “you can’t hang a man for killing a woman whose trying to steal your horse.” 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 - 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 still about the stories to me. 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 all make great stories - some heart wrenching and some just fun, but the best story of them all with the most hope ends 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)