As all y'all can probably tell from my "Track of the Week" selections recently, I've been listening to a lot of classic country music these days. That musical itch also pushed me to pick up Michael Streissguth's book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, a look at the "outlaw country" movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Reading that book is a reminder that conflicts over the nature of country music between the twin poles of "pop" and "traditional" have been with us for quite some time. Since at least Garth Brooks, the "pop" side has dominated country music to the point that Tom Petty has aptly described it as "bad rock with a fiddle." That had a lot to do with my rejection of country growing up; it just sounded like sappy, overproduced crap when compared to hip-hop and grunge.
Unlike today, however, middle of the road country music in the 1970s faced a formidable outlaw insurgency by artists influenced by the counter-culture, and who declared independence from Nashville's rules and strictures. This is the kind of country music that made me love a genre I used to loathe. Here are the five best (or at least my favorite) outlaw country songs of the 1970s.
1. Waylon Jennings, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"
Jennings hit an amazing hot streak in the 1970s after getting artistic control over his records. More than any other outlaw artist, he managed to transcend the "pop" versus "tradition" conflict in country music. On this song he is traditional in that he name-checks Hank Williams and implicitly criticizes modern Nashville. On the other hand, this driving song is built around a electric rock guitar and has few of country music's traditional markers. There's no steel guitar or choruses, just a pulsating, relentless beat. This song is ultimate proof that country music can draw from its reservoirs of tradition and still incorporate modern sounds without being derivative. Whenever I hear this song, I hear the sound of of what might have been.
2. Kris Kristofferson, "Sunday Morning Coming Down"
While Johnny Cash sang the definitive version of this song (as I highlighted in a recent post), it was written by Kristofferson. A student of literature with an obvious Bob Dylan influence, Kristofferson revolutionized country songwriting by giving it poetry and lyrical sophistication. There is no other song that can describe so vividly how a bad hangover can make you feel absolute despair and Weltschmertz.
3. Willie Nelson, "Whiskey River"
Speaking of drinking, "Whiskey River" is probably the best of a venerable country song genre: the "I am drinking (and failing) to forget her" song. It comes off of Nelson's killer Shotgun Willie album, which is loaded with great songs like the title track and "Sad Songs and Waltzes." The grooving bass and driving rhythm guitar would sound at home on a soul record, another example of outlaw country's admirable ability to improve traditional sounds by borrowing from other genres.
4. Waylon Jennings, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me"
This comes off the Honky Tonk Heroes album, perhaps the best of the whole outlaw genre and also a showcase for songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. I've always liked to say that the older I get, the more I appreciate classic blues, R&B, and country, because these genres are music for adults with adult problems, like broken marriages, money problems, and getting old. This ballad really cuts deep, as it articulates the feeling I have now in my early middle age that if I was ever going to amount to anything, it would have happened by now. The way Waylon sings "An old five and dimer is all I really meant to be" with such pained resignation gets me every time.
5. Tompall Glaser, "Put Another Log on the Fire"
Here's a satirical song told from the point of view of an ogre, a la Randy Newman. The character is a chauvinist pig of the worst sort with a list of demands for his wife, but the last words are "put another log on the fire/ and tell me why you're leaving me." Women like Loretta Lynn had written about crummy husbands and male boorishness before, but this may be the first feminist country song sung by a man, and a great one at that.