American musicians Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings (1937 - 2002), circa 1983
Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Country Music's Rebellious Outlaws Back When They First Challenged Nashville


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Ladies love outlaws like babies love stray dogs
Ladies touch babies like a banker touches gold
And outlaws touch the ladies
Somewhere deep down in their soul

-Waylon Jennings

While the 1970s are fondly remembered for being the psychedelic days of disco fever and bell bottoms, it was also an important time for country music. A few rebellious singers banded together to create their own unique sound outside of the dictates of the more conservative Nashville and, in the process, created an entire movement. The outlaw country sound developed a passionate fan following at the time, and though its popularity has dipped over the years, has influenced many performers today who continue to resonate with the lifestyle and brand of being an "outlaw." Modern country singers like Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, and Ray Wylie Hubbard are just a few modern artists continuing on with the outlaw movement, decades after it first shook things up in Nashville.

What exactly is outlaw country music? Just look back at some of country's greatest rule-breakers, and it's easy to spot the outlaws. Long hair, a more rock and roll look and sound than country music had ever seen before. Definitely not a look that Nashville was initially thrilled to throw up on the Grand Ole Opry stage. This little subgenre of country even made its way down to the music scene in Texas, particularly in Austin.

Let's take a look back at some of the most prominent outlaw country artists back when outlaw country music first hit the scene.

Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash

Country singers Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash perform onstage with acoustic guitars in circa 1975

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Willie Nelson is really one of the creators of the entire movement. He fought for the right to make his own recording decisions with Waylon Jennings as the first to veer from the Nashville sound. While Cash was already a huge country star by the '70s, joining in with the outlaw sound gave his career a welcome revival. It even brought together the Highwaymen, who continued making music together outside of their solo careers into the '90s.

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Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson

Musicians Willie Nelson, left, and Waylon Jennings, right, at a party at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan on January 16, 1978

Photo by Karen Wiles/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Just the two outlaws who started it all. At the time, Nelson had been a songwriter in Nashville but moving down to Austin and performing alongside other singers like Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver shaped his image into being one of the faces of the outlaw country movement.

Townes Van Zandt

Singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt performs at The Last Resort on February 6, 1973 in Athens, Georgia

Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage

Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was one of the many artists at the time who fully embraced the outlaw movement in his music and even lifestyle.

Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash stands with his guests (left to right) Waylon Jennings (1937 - 2002); Jessi Colter in a promotional portrait from Cash's television special 'Johnny Cash; Spring Fever'

Photo by CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

The outlaw movement really became mainstream with the release of Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976, the first platinum-selling album in country music. The album featured songs by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. Even Jennings and Colter's son, Shooter Jennings, would go on to fully embrace the outlaw sound in his music.

Tanya Tucker

Country singer Tanya Tucker is interviewed live on-the-air at WSB-FM on May 17, 1978 in Atlanta, Georgia

Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage

Very few women were considered outlaws at this time, but Tanya Tucker made the cut. The movement helped shape her entire image as an artist.

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Steve Earle

CIRCA 1980: Photo of Steve Earle

Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During this time, Earle was a guitar player and member of Guy Clark's band. Though his first solo album wasn't until the '80s, he's a talented singer-songwriter who has written for most of the big outlaw country singers like Cash, Nelson and Harris.

Emmylou Harris

1970: Photo of Emmylou Harris

Photo by Ginny Winn/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

After getting her start in the Greenwich Village folk scene, Emmylou Harris began performing with Gram Parsons in the 1970s and became a part of Parsons' band The Fallen Angels. Following Parsons' tragic death in 1973, Harris released her major label debut album Pieces of the Sky.

Always devoted to artistry above chasing chart success, Emmylou Harris is a true country outlaw.

Guy Clark

Singer and songwriter Guy Clark poses for an RCA publicity still circa 1977

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Another Texas country singer who fully embraced the outlaw movement.

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Hank Williams Jr

Hank Williams Jr. performs for a record industry audience at Stouffer's Hotel on May 26, 1977 in Atlanta, Georgia

Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage

Though the outlaw sound really dominated the '70s, Hank Williams Jr really saw a huge amount of success in the '80s when country music still embraced traditional and country-pop sounds.

Jerry Jeff Walker

American country music singer and songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker (1942 - 2020) backstage at the Memphis Colliseum in Memphis, Tennessee, 27th December 1977

Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

Alongside Nelson, Walker was another leader in the outlaw movement. He's best remembered for his hit song, "Mr. Bojangles."

Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard

Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard at Countryside Opry, Chicago, Illinois, October 31, 1980

Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images

Later in his career, the already successful Merle Haggard became one of the most notable figures of outlaw country music. Johnny Paycheck saw most of his success during the '70s at the peak of the outlaw movement.

Kris Kristofferson

American actor and singer Kris Kristofferson posed in England at a press call to promote his latest film 'Blume In Love' circa 1973

Photo by Larry Ellis Collection/Getty Images

He's one of the Highwaymen for a reason. Kris Kristofferson was one of the most successful members of outlaw country.

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Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver publicity shoot at Wise Fool's Pub, Chicago, Illinois, March 23, 1980

Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images)

Texan singer Billy Joe Shaver never necessarily hit it as big as other outlaw stars like Nelson or Kristofferson, but his 1973 album Old Five and Dimers Like Me is widely regarded as an outlaw classic.

Tompall Glaser

Tompall Glaser in 1977

Wikipedia

Best remembered for his outlaw days, Glaser was one of the many artists featured on the timeless album Wanted! The Outlaws.

READ MORE: The 10 Best Chris Stapleton Songs, Ranked

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