“Outlaw country” is an ironic descriptor at best, applied to a music that, without the modifier, began as a lucrative embarrassment to the phonograph salesmen of the 1920s, their newly-minted “hillbilly” record catalogs doing surprisingly well next to the more respectable stacks of whatever maudlin tenor was the operatic toast of the day. Country music’s cornpone reputation grew as its burgeoning industry began to trade on an image based in white southern poverty; but if the marketing suggested the music was as impoverished as its people (a patent falsehood), this achieved for the proponents of such thinking a comfortable outsider-ism, a romantic us-versus-them rewind and replay of Reconstruction that survives in other place in the South as well, through for instance a protracted and continuing — and, unfortunately, necessary — civil rights movement, to this day. So then, what’s this Outlaw business? The term attached to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and a handful of other country writers and singers who, starting in the late 1960s, were drawn away from the industrial strength, smooth country music produced by “Nashville,” that Tennessee town’s small oligarchy of producers and record labels who held sway over any music distributed under the category of country, and pointedly avoided shifting their audience’s gaze towards the rockier issues or musical themes of the times. Jennings, like Nelson, bucked at this, knew what it meant for their art, and went back to Texas; he turned up the rock’n’roll rhythms he’d played with Buddy Holly, sang what he wanted, and called Nashville out on its phony conservatism. In so doing, Waylon and the country outlaws — and the new southern bands like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd — found a younger, national country audience, and also reminded rockers that their favorite music was as much country as blues.
Fast forward a half century and the same tension exists in country music, with a handful of artists living outside the airbrush Nashville continues to apply to its version of bro’ country American culture. Trying to live real. Living the dream, as Sturgill Simpson might say, though the song he wrote by this name is nothing if not double-edged, and carries a lot more weight in its few words than most anthems I can think of. Forced to defend the song’s lyrics at one point, he wrote:
Ironically, the song is actually a metaphor comparing the soothing yet completely addictive and damaging effects of hard narcotic opiates to the negative sociological impact of organized religion and blind faith when forced upon society and used as a political tool by self-righteous, thinly-veiled bigots to control and manipulate the masses and enhance the suffering of impoverished, lower class citizens. Also, since I’m self-funding/self-releasing my art instead of shooting for ACM [Academy of Country Music] awards and taking it up the ass from the music row man, I have the right to write and sing and say whatever I choose just as you have the right to not buy or listen to my music and stay away from my page if you don’t like it.
That Simpson had to write this at all is a farce, but that he did is valuable, and continues the tradition of outlaw country and what country music was at its roots. Like the other songs on 2014’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, “Living the Dream” is a primer in the lean, rock and roll approach to country, its guitars drawing from the full history of its pioneering players while marking out its own ground. From its languid beginning to its keening wail of a finish, this song is from the wellspring itself.
*Photo above by David McClister.