Outlaws: A Concept of Country Music’s Past or a Thriving Genre?

When I think of outlaws I think of the gunslingin’, trash-talkin’, do-no-gooders who ruled the old west in the 1800s. Little did I know until this past week that outlaw refers to a certain genre of country. An outlaw, according to dictionary.com, is some one who is a rebel or a non-conformist. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson characterize the true meaning of an outlaw in country music. Their collaborative song “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” pokes fun at the definition of a classic cowboy saying, “They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone. Even with someone they love.” The song continues to define the classic cowboy when ironically Jennings and Nelson epitomize the opposite of such. The country music outlaw does not allow record producers and popular culture to define the meaning of a cowboy and country music. They are the free spirits and trailblazers of country music that set the pace for the rest of the pack.


Willie Nelson (pictured on the left) was tired of the clean cut style the Nashville culture encouraged him to pursue, so he moved to Austin, grew his hair out, and wore a bandana—a tangible sign that he was fed up with the mainstream definition of country. Waylon Jennings also grew weary of the controlling Nashville labels that told him he could not play his guitar in recording sessions and that he must dress a certain way. Both of these men had enough…and they did something about it.

The outlaw movement reigned in the 70s, but what about outlaws today? Can we still find them roaming the charts of country music like those that went before them? Has the definition of outlaw evolved so much today that there is no such thing as a true outlaw like Nelson or Jennings? Luke Bryan makes it clear to everyone that he, indeed, is NOT an outlaw due to the fact that he does not “do cocaine and run around“. Thanks for the clarification, Luke! Bryan’s laughably skewed definition of outlaw proves the idea that outlaw is a term loosely thrown about in the country music world today, giving us reason to doubt anyone could truly hold that title anymore.

Although it is highly contested, many would argue that Eric Church is a modern day outlaw. He began his career as an outlaw by getting kicked off the Rascal Flatts tour for refusing to follow directions and outplaying the rest of the band. Church also stays true to his own music and writes many of his own songs–unlike many mainstreamers who work very closely with the record labels, resulting in generic, crowd-pleasing hits.

M_KaceyMusgravesGun630_120513What about Kacey Musgraves? She is quickly gaining a presence in country music with many awards, nominations and top of the chart hits. She clearly earns the title of outlaw with the unique and controversial topics she explores in her songs. In her chart topping hit “Follow Your Arrow”, Kacey unveils the truth that no matter what you do in life people will criticize you so “you might as well just do whatever you want.” It is this kind of mentality that influences Kacey’s music career, earning her the outlaw title.

So there it is.  Being an outlaw does not mean you have to fly under the radar or even be a pioneer of country music’s past.  It means embracing your true identity regardless of what others may think. Although true outlaws are difficult to come by today, they exist and they are thriving.


Filed under Blog Post 2, Outlaw, Reflection

4 Responses to Outlaws: A Concept of Country Music’s Past or a Thriving Genre?

  1. Lauren Harris

    I was reading an article (http://theboot.com/eric-church-outlaws/) the other day that was saying how Eric Church thinks that “the outlaw word…is something that [he] think gets used a lot. And misused.” He loves to to his own thing and not care what people say/think, especially Nashville, but he knows that nobody can compare to Waylon and Willie. When people of today do not know how to classify a certain artist because they do not do mainstream stuff, they just reach for that word and throw it out there. I think that Eric Church wants to be known for doing ‘outlaw’ things but at the end of the day he is the closest thing to it but not it. I really like the quote you used by Luke Bryan because it just shows that people don’t actually know what the word means.

  2. Kayla Miracle

    Darah, I think this post gives a nice overview of the perception of outlaws. I, too, thought that outlaws were just characters in old westerns and not a category of country music singers. I love how you focused on two older outlaws as well as two newer ones. I personally am not a huge fan of Eric Church (mostly because I hate how he always wears sunglasses inside lol) but I love Kacey Musgraves. I think she has such an interesting sound. Her I-don’t-care attitude is what makes me so interested in her music. I used her whole first album to navigate through my life when it first came out. She’s a super cool girl bringing femininity back into country music. It’s awesome. I think that outlaws are such a cool factor of country music — they give the Luke Bryan’s and Carrie Underwood’s something to combat and compete against. Their views on things are very different than the majority of country music but very important to country music. Thanks for sharing!

  3. John Monroe

    When Dusty brought up the question of “can modern artists be outlaws” in class the other day it really got me thinking. I definitely agree with you that Willie and Waylon were outlaws for bucking the trend and being who they wanted to be. I’m not so sure if doing that same thing today makes one an outlaw though. It seems to me that in today’s culture “doing you” and being your true self is the cool thing to do, and the advent of the internet and cheapening of technology have taken a little bit of the power from the studios and have given it to the artist. What my argument lacks though is “What does make up a modern day outlaw?” I have no idea – maybe it’s not possible anymore.

  4. Adam Keyrouze

    Before this class I must admit I didn’t think much about any artists being true outlaws in the country music industry. I guess in todays culture, I was never given the idea that any artists were really outlaws (other than rappers, for the obvious reason of drugs, guns, etc.) especially country artists. What really makes me question the terminology is that country can talk about alcohol and sexual innuendos and it’s not considered explicit but whenever it happens in hip-hop it becomes explicit. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the country “style” that culture gives it now-a-days is more cowboyish/western more than outlaw in terms of breaking laws/trends.

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