“You know this old world is full of singers,

But just a few are chosen to tear your heart out when they sing.

Imagine life without them, all your radio heroes

Like the outlaw that walks through Jesse’s dream.”

Last week Merle Haggard died from complications of pneumonia adding to the list of singers that were a part of the outlaw movement that developed in country music in the 70s. During this time period, Chet Atkins produced many of the songs and albums that came out of Nashville. 

As the producer, he and others insisted that these recordings contain the “Nashville Sound” that included violins and other stringed instruments.  Examples of such music would be almost anything by Ray Price such as “For the Good Times”.  Therefore when people like Waylon Jennings came to Nashville, producers attempted to force them into a particular style of music. Waylon said it best, “It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar, where do we take it from here?” 

In 1976, the album “Wanted! The Outlaws” was released including songs by Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. This album and others signaled a new subgenre of country music that became labeled outlaw country.

“No, there will never be another Red-Headed Stranger, a man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues,

The Okie from Muskogee, or Hello Darling; Lord, I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes.”

Waylon Jennings released “Honky Tonk Heros” in 1973 followed by Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975.  The title song of Waylon’s album was written by another outlaw, Billy Joe Shaver.  Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, and Townes Van Zandt were inspired by the outlaw movement and began to write and record songs.  Others such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard became associated with the sound.  Waylon, Willie, Kristofferson, and Cash released albums as the group, The Highwaymen.  Individuals both within outlaw country and more traditional singers began to obtain iconic status.  One of these singers was George Jones who released “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “The Grand Tour.” Emmylou Harris also gained major status in the outlaw brand of country music.

“Who’s gonna fill their shoes? Who’s gonna stand that tall.

Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you,

Lord, I wonder who’s gonna fill their shoes?”

Now Waylon is gone as is George Jones and Townes Van Zandt.  The original outlaw, Hank Williams died in the 50’s.  Last week Haggard joined the list of those who have passed.  Country music has developed a new sound represented by Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and others.  Several years ago, one of the awards shows wouldn’t allow George Jones to sing the complete version and a new song he had released.  We still have Willie, Kris, Billy Joe, and Emmylou.

But there seems to be a new outlaw movement occurring including singers such as Shooter Jennings, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Chris Stapleton, and Jamey Johnson.  We have a satellite radio station, Outlaw Country that plays Americana and Red Dirt Music.  As these and others like them continue to write and perform, maybe they will be the ones to “fill their shoes.”

Bob Newby is a psychology professor at Tarleton State University who lives in Morgan Mill. He is a member of the E-T's community columnists and can be reached at newby@lipan.net.