The late 1960s and 1970s saw the resurgence of a more traditional country sound. The Nashville sound, by 1970, was well-worn, and had merged into the pre-British Revolution pop culture in many areas. Aside from the "outlaws" profiled below, new artists such as Charley Pride ("Kiss an Angel Good Morning") and Conway Twitty ("Hello Darlin' ") emerged to break the mold of the Nashville Sound. Southern Country Rockers such as The Outlaws, The Marshall Tucker Band, David Allan Coe, The Charlie Daniels Band, and others took country to a new, higher level. Without a doubt, though, it was the outlaws who defined this era in country music.
Born in Abbot, Texas, on April 30, 1933, Willie Nelson was raised by his grandparents after his own parents had separated. His grandparents taught him some chords and by his teens he was becoming proficient on guitar. After his discharge from the Air Force in the early '50s, Nelson took a job hosting country shows on a Fort Worth station, doubling at night as a musician in some rough local honky-tonks and, whenever he could, he was jotting down songs.
When he finally made his way to Nashville and found a job in Ray Price's band as a bass player, he found that he was finally playing his songs. Price, a huge name of that era, made Nelson's "Night Life" his theme song (more than 70 artists have since recorded "Night Life"). Faron Young cut "Hello Walls," and Patsy Cline "Crazy," both in 1961, and Willie himself recorded "The Party's Over."
After poaching most of Ray Price's band from him, Nelson went on the road, and got remarried, settling in Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Besides recording 18 albums in three years, he also helped the career of Charley Pride, featuring him on his show in the deepest South during the racially sensitive years of civil rights.
During the '60s, the smooth Nashville Sound was in its ascendancy and Willie found himself becoming increasingly disillusioned with big business methods, hankering to make his mark as a singer rather than as a songwriter and preferably on his own terms.
Nelson's music in the early and middle 1960's is credited with sparking the "outlaw" or progressive country music movement. His biggest hits, however, came later, in the 1970s. After leaving RCA (with the help of Neil Reshen, who later became his manager), Nelson signed with Atlantic, an established label new in country music.
Willie reconciled hip and redneck musical interests and helped lead a new explosion of interest in country music, teaming up with Waylon Jennings to top the country charts with "Good Hearted Woman" in 1976, and to be featured on country's first certified platinum album, the "Wanted: The Outlaws" compilation. Nelson recorded his most popular (and arguably his best) album in 1978 with Jennings, Leon Russell, and Ray Price entitled "Stardust," a collection of Tin Pan Alley standards.
Strangely enough, Nelson can also be credited with starting the cross-over movement, with his 1975 pop hit "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain." Two of Nelson's other pop/country hits, "Always On My Mind," and "On the Road Again," also fueled the Urban Cowboy movement. Included here is a classic Willie Nelson track, "Nothing's Changed, Nothing's New."
Refusing to be tied down to commercial considerations, Nelson has recorded such diverse album projects as "Stardust," "The Troublemaker" (a gospel set), "To Lefty From Willie" (a tribute to Lefty Frizzell), "Angel Eyes" (featuring jazz guitarist Jackie King), and his acclaimed return to mainstream audiences in 1993, "Across the Borderline" (produced by Don Was, and featuring Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and others).
Winner of six CMA awards in 1969, John R. Cash was born in Kingsland, Arkansas, February 26, 1932, son of a poverty-stricken cotton farmer. In 1935, the Cash family moved to the government resettlement Dyess Colony, surviving the Mississippi river flood of 1937, an event documented in a 1959 Cash song, "Five Feet High and Rising." After graduating from high school, Cash spent some time in the Air Force, taught himself how to play guitar and wrote his first songs.
After his discharge in July 1954, Cash married and moved to Memphis where he became an electric appliance salesman. In Memphis he met guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant and began performing with them -- for free -- on station KWEM. Eventually, he caught the ear of Sam Phillips and signed his first recording contract with Sun Records.
Their first single, "Hey Porter/Cry, Cry, Cry" -- listed as by Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Two -- became a hit, selling more than 100,000 copies. The follow-up, "Folsom Prison Blues," another Cash original, was also a success and led to Cash joining KWKH's Louisiana Hayride in December 1955. He also began touring extensively, and after "I Walk the Line," a cross-over hit that sold a million copies, and "There You Go," another 1956 winner, he joined the Grand Ole Opry.
Personal tragedy marked the career of Johnny Cash during the '60s. Cash and his enlarged band (having added drummer W.S. Holland, and becoming The Tennessee Three) being much in demand, played nearly 300 gigs a year, with Cash popping pills to provide enough energy. Cash first began working with June Carter in December 1961. The following year saw a heavier work schedule that included a 30-hour tour of Korea and a disastrous Carnegie Hall date. But the pill-popping worsened and, in October 1965, Cash was arrested by the narcotics squad in El Paso and received a 30-day suspended sentence and a $1,000 fine. The following year he was jailed once more -- for embarking on a 2am flower-picking spree.
Cash overcame those obstacles, and the resulting poor health from his drug addiction, to turn out a string of hits to contribute to the outlaw sound of the late '60s and early '70s. Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980, his career, spanning from the 1950's through today, has earned him 8 Grammy awards, and put more than 130 songs on the country charts. After a quiet decade with Columbia and Mercury Records, Cash moved to American Recordings and burst back on the scene with "American Recordings," an album featuring Cash and his guitar and all-new material.
"We need a change," Waylon Jennings sings in "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," the piercing kickoff track to his greatest album, Dreaming My Dreams. Waylon is singing about the country-music industry in this song, but the sentiment could apply to any element of this ramblin' man's life or career. Jennings, more than any of the outlaws, epitomized this era of battling the now oft-abused Nashville Sound. Waylon became a spokesman for the iconoclastic outlaw movement, and, incidentally, has a near encyclopedic knowledge of country music history.
Waylon was born in Littlefield, Texas, and influenced heavily by the sound of WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, with Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry, and Jimmie Rodgers. After quitting high school to pursue music, Waylon found himself in Lubbock at radio station KLLL as a popular DJ. known for his side-splitting ad-libs. It was here where Jennings cemented his friendship with Buddy Holly. When Holly put together his new band in 1958, he took Jennings along as his bass player. Though Waylon rarely plays bass anymore, it is no accident that his popular sound of the '70s and early '80s was built around steady, swirling bass rhythms.
Waylon's early success came with producer Chet Atkins beginning in 1965 at RCA Records. Despite the tension between Jennings and Atkins, Waylon turned out several hits, including "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" (1968), and "Just to Satisfy You" (1968).
Waylon's Outlaw persona, and the mixture of thrills and grief that it brought him, had become his major lyrical subject, on songs like "Amanda" (1974), "Rainy Day Woman" (1974), and "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" (1977). A live album recorded in Texas yielded a wild Jimmie Rodgers re-interpretation, "T for Texas," (with a Memphis beat but no yodel), and a deceptively complex new tune, "Bob Wills is Still the King." Also included here is a rare Waylon original "The Taker."
Country's most charismatic living legend, Merle Haggard is proof that you do not have to forsake your musical roots to achieve fame. The Haggard family had been driven from their farm in dustbowl East Oklahoma and were living in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, California, when Merle was born on April 6, 1937. Merle was nine when his father, a competent fiddle player, died, and without his father's influence he began to run wild. He embarked on a series of petty thefts and frauds and was in and out of local prisons. Then, in 1957, he was charged with attempted burglary and sentenced to six to fifteen years in San Quentin.
While in prison, Merle did some picking and songwriting, and was in San Quentin when Johnny Cash performed one of his prison concerts in 1958. When he left jail in 1960, he was determined to try and make a go of performing. He moved to Bakersfield, then a growing country music center. Helped initially by Buck Owens, and his former wife Bonnie (whom Haggard eventually married), he started playing the local club scene. Merle also ran into Fuzzy Owen, an Arkansas musician who was also playing the Bakersfield clubs. Fuzzy, who is Merle's manager to this day, encouraged him and helped get Merle work locally.
In 1962, Fuzzy organized some recording sessions in a converted 'garage' studio and produced some singles, which were released on Tally, a label Owens had purchased from his cousin Lewis Tally. The next year Merle made his debut on the country charts with "Sing a Sad Song," which reached No.19. In 1965, they released "(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers," giving them a Top 10 hit. This success led to Capitol acquiring Merle's contract, plus all the recordings made for Tally.
Merle's second Capitol single, the self penned classic honky-tonker, "Swinging Doors," spent six months on the charts, reaching the Top 5. Equally as impressive was "The Bottle Let Me Down," which made No.3. This was followed by Haggard's first No.1, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," which made 1966 a highly successful year from him.
Two other apparently innocent songs were committed to record in 1969: "Okie from Muskogee," and "The Fightin' Side of Me." "Okie" re-stated redneck values in disturbance and Vietnam marches, yet Merle had written it as a joke, picking up a remark one of his band members had made about the conservative habits of Oklahoma natives as they rolled through Muskogee. "Fightin' Side of Me" was another apparent put-down of those who were so bold as to disparage America's image. When Haggard premiered "Okie" for a crowd of NCOs at Fort Bragg, N.C., they went wilder than he had expected, and from then on the song became a silent majority legend.
Haggards success continued through the early '80s with new label Epic Records. Although the stream of hits has slowed, Haggard was opening shows for Clint Black by 1991, and several artists (including Diamond Rio, Lee Roy Parnell, and others) collaborated on "Mama's Hungry Eyes," a 1994 tribute album to Haggard and his music. Merle still maintains considerable following in mainstream country music today.
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