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.
Actually i grew up on country music in the 70s
And i know the lyrics to all the country songs from that era, i really liked it back then
now i can't stand it, the sound of today's country artists seems really forced and twangy, really hokey and insincere
at least johnny cash and loretta lynn were real people, this new crop of country airheads have been compromised by the great moneymaking corporate music machine
and on top of all that, country music in general suffers from the same creative wasteland that rock music has been slipping into for the last 20 years
i did give i