Outlaw Country Music in the 1970s

Updated on May 29, 2020
Sherry Hewins profile image

I grew up in the "classic rock" era, but I love music of every genre. I love sharing my old favorites while still discovering new artists.

Outlaw country music inspired many genres. Read on to learn more about this genre.
Outlaw country music inspired many genres. Read on to learn more about this genre.

By the early 1970s, rock music was moving away from the blues-rock sound of the '60s and falling more under the influence of folk and country music. Think of such bands as The Eagles, America, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Flying Burrito Brothers, Poko, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Grateful Dead.

Meanwhile, country music itself was stagnating, becoming an uninspired, formulaic genre. The Nashville based country music establishment demanded conformity from its artists. And, by the early 1970s, a small rebellion had begun. Artists wanted more control over the music they were putting out.

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson are usually thought of as the stereotypical outlaws, there were many other musical outlaws making their mark on the movement. People like Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael Martin Murphey, Billy Joe Shaver, David Allen Coe, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore each made a significant contribution to the development of the outlaw genre.

Great Outlaw Country Musicians in the '70s

  • Waylon Jennings
  • Billy Joe Shaver
  • Willie Nelson
  • Jerry Jeff Walker
  • David Allen Coe
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • Johnny Cash

Waylon Jennings

Born: June 15, 1937

From: Littlefield, TX

Waylon Jennings was always a bit of a misfit. He was influenced by rockabilly and folk. He got his first big break in 1958, when he played bass for Buddy Holly after Holly split with his band, the Crickets. Jennings was on the "Winter Dance Party Tour," and only escaped sharing Holly's fate because he gave up his seat on the doomed airplane.

In the mid-'60s, Jennings shared an apartment in Nashville with Johnny Cash. You can hear the influence of the Man in Black in his music. During that period, Jennings was releasing albums that sold pretty well, and getting on Billboard's Country Chart regularly. Still he found that between being on the road, paying for travel expenses, and his amphetamine habit, there wasn't anything left over. In fact, he was in debt.

Not only that, but Jennings hated the lack of artistic freedom. The producers did not allow him to play his own guitar or select his own material. When his contract expired, he hired new management and negotiated a better contract. He pressured Chet Atkins and RCA, to give him creative control and let him produce his own albums. In 1973, he released Lonesome, On'ry and Mean. The title song was written by Steve Young, who never became famous as a performer, but his songs influenced what was to become the outlaw style.

My Favorite Waylon Jennings Song: "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean"

Billy Joe Shaver

Born: August 16, 1939

From: Corsicana, TX

Billy Joe Shaver was the unsung songwriting hero for Waylon's hit, "Honky Tonk Heroes." Shaver didn’t make it big, but his 1973 album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, is a classic in the outlaw country genre.

My Favorite Billy Joe Shaver Song: "Old Five and Dimers Like Me"

Willie Nelson

Born: April 29, 1933

From: Abbott, TX

During the 1960s, Willie Nelson worked as a songwriter at Pamper Music in Nashville, Tennessee. Some of his songs became hits for other singers. Faron Young's version of "Hello Walls" reached No. 1 on the country charts and was a Top 20 pop hit. Patsy Cline's rendition of "Crazy" was a Top 10 hit on both country and pop charts, and Ray Price’s version of “Night Life,” was a Top 40 country hit.

However, despite releasing 17 albums, Willie had little success as a performer. He just didn't fit the mold Nashville was looking for.

In 1975, Willie Nelson negotiated a contract with Columbia Records that granted him complete artistic control over his next album. After only three days, and $20,000 in studio costs, he presented them with Red Headed Stranger.

Columbia Records producers were not impressed. They thought it sounded sparse and unfinished. However, they were legally bound to release and promote the album. Despite the record company's doubts, Red Headed Stranger was an immediate hit with country fans and mainstream audiences alike.

My Favorite Willie Nelson Song: "Redheaded Stranger"

Jerry Jeff Walker

Born: March 16, 1942

From: Oneonta, NY

Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band were integral in the birth of outlaw country. Jerry Jeff was originally from New York and has his roots in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. He first made his reputation by writing and recording the frequently covered song, "Mr. Bojangles," in 1968. Jerry Jeff relocated to Austin, Texas, in the 1970s, where he became associated with outlaw country music.

¡Viva Terlingua! is a live album by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band. It was recorded at the Luckenbach Dancehall in Luckenbach, Texas, in 1973. It includes his own songs and songs written by others such as "LA Freeway" by Guy Clark, "Backsliders Wine," by Michael Martin Murphey, "London Homesick Blues," by Gary P. Nunn, and "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother," by Ray Wiley Hubbard.

My Favorite Jerry Jeff Walker Song: "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother"

David Allen Coe

Born: September 6, 1939

From: Akron, OH

David Allen Coe was born in Akron, Ohio. He may be the most deserving of the title outlaw. He was sent to reform school at the age of nine and spent much of the next 20 years in correctional facilities. He served three years at the Ohio State Penitentiary.

After he was released, in 1967, Coe embarked on a music career in Nashville. Early in 1970, David Allen Coe released his debut album, Penitentiary Blue. The album didn't get much attention, and in 1971, he signed as a songwriter with Windows Publishing Company in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1973, Tanya Tucker had a No. 1 hit single with his song "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)." Coe soon became one of Nashville's hottest songwriters. He signed with Columbia Records and recorded his own version of the song for his album, Once Upon a Rhyme, released in 1975. The album also featured a song written by Steve Goodman and John Prine, "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." Ironically, it was that song that became a top-10 Country Billboard hit.

Johnny Paycheck's cover of Coe's song "Take This Job and Shove It" was a number-one hit and was Coe's most successful song.

My Favorite David Allen Coe Song: "You Never Even Called Me By My Name"

Johnny Paycheck

Born: May 31, 1938

From: Greenfield, OH

Johnny Paycheck is best know for his recording of David Allan Coe's song "Take This Job and Shove It."

It was the title song on his seventeenth album. It was his second album released in 1977 and is his most commercially successful album. The album produced two other singles, "Colorado Cool-Aid" and "Georgia in a Jug."

My Favorite Johnny Paycheck Song: "Take This Job and Shove It"

Johnny Cash

Born: February 26, 1932

From: Kingsland, AR

Johnny Cash was playing outlaw country before anybody knew what it was. Even with a full Nashville country orchestra behind him, his songs were edgy and independent. Outlaw music is not about a sound, it is more about an anti-establishment state of mind.

Johnny Cash experienced a revival of his career with the popularity of the outlaw movement. He worked with Nelson, Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson in his later career, but he'd had that outlaw attitude since the beginning.

My Favorite Johnny Cash (From Wanted! The Outlaws) Song: "Highwayman"

Wanted! The Outlaws

Label: RCA Records

Release Date: January 12, 1976

Outlaw country music reached its peak with the release of Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. By that time RCA saw the profit potential in this new kind of country music and started playing up the outlaw angle. They put together this selection of previously released tracks from Nelson, Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter. The cover is done up like a wanted poster, with sepia-toned photos of the artists. It sold more than one million copies and it was the first country music album to be certified platinum.

My Favorite Song From Wanted! The Outlaws: "Heaven or Hell"

As it became more popular, the outlaw movement inevitably became more commercialized. Once it became mainstream, artists began to rebel against the outlaw movement itself.

Willie and Waylon had become superstars who could do no wrong. As outlaws do though, they grew tired of being pigeonholed. They rebelled again and moved on to new things. On his album Stardust, Willie sang show-tunes and Waylon had a hit with "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand."

Still, it was the outlaw movement that gave them that freedom to explore. It was an exciting time for country music, and music is forever changed as a result. The musical experimentation it encouraged continue even today.

© 2019 Sherry Hewins


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    • Sherry Hewins profile imageAUTHOR

      Sherry Hewins 

      7 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Thanks Wesman. You made my day, I'm glad you liked my article.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 

      7 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I spend hours scrolling this website, just hoping to see something which interests me just a wee little bit. For days and days, weeks and weeks, there's been hardly anything.



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