By: Roughstock Staff
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the resurgence of traditional country on Music Row. The Nashville sound was slowly losing popularity, eventually merging into the pre-British Revolution pop culture in many areas. New artists such as Charley Pride ("Kiss an Angel Good Morning") and Conway Twitty ("Hello Darlin' ") emerged to break the mold of the Nashville Sound. Acts such as The Outlaws, The Marshall Tucker Band, David Allan Coe and The Charlie Daniels Band built their catalogs around more traditional sounds, but a quartet of men, later referred to as The Outlaws, defined this seminal era in country music.
Born on April 30, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson was raised by his grandparents after his own parents separated. After his discharge from the Air Force in the early '50s, Nelson accepted a job hosting country shows on a Fort Worth station, doubling at night as a musician in local honky-tonks and, whenever he could, he was polishing his craft as a songwriter.
When he arrived in Nashville and found a job in Ray Price's band as a bass player, that attention to detail paid dividends. Price, one of the genre's legendary figures, made Nelson's "Night Life" his theme song (more than 70 artists have since recorded "Night Life"). Faron Young cut "Hello Walls," and Patsy Cline "Crazy," both in 1961, and Willie himself recorded "The Party's Over." After poaching most of Ray Price's band from him, Nelson went on the road, remarried, and settled in Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Nashville. Besides recording 18 albums in three years, he also helped the career of Charley Pride, featuring him on his show in the deep South during the civil rights era.
During the '60s, the smooth Nashville Sound was in its ascendancy and Willie found himself becoming increasingly disillusioned with big business methods, hankering to make his mark as a singer rather than as a songwriter. After leaving RCA (with the help of Neil Reshen, who later became his manager), Nelson signed with Atlantic, an established label that had only recently worked in country music. In 1975, he defied country music conventions by releasing a concept album, Red Headed Strange, the story of a fugitive preacher on the run from the law after killing his wife. Nelson helped lead a new explosion of interest in country music, teaming up with Waylon Jennings to top the country singles chart with "Good Hearted Woman" in 1976, and he was also featured on country's first platinum-certified album, the Wanted: The Outlaws compilation. Nelson recorded his most popular album in 1978 with Jennings, Leon Russell, and Ray Price entitled Stardust, a collection of Tin Pan Alley standards.
Strangely enough, Nelson also played a major role in the crossover movement during this period. His 1975 hit "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain" broke on to the pop charts, while his two biggest hits, "Always On My Mind" and "On the Road Again," were key releases during the Urban Cowboy era. Refusing to be tied down to commercial considerations, Nelson has recorded such diverse album projects as Stardust, The Troublemaker (a gospel set), To Lefty From Willie (a tribute to Lefty Frizzell), Angel Eyes (featuring jazz guitarist Jackie King), and his acclaimed return to mainstream audiences in 1993, Across the Borderline (produced by Don Was, and featuring Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and others). That same year, he was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame. One of the most prolific musical performers of all time, Nelson continues to tour and record. Duets with Lee Ann Womack and Toby Keith this decade show his influence on the current generation of country stars.
"We need a change," Waylon Jennings sings in "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," the piercing kickoff track to his greatest album, Dreaming My Dreams. Waylon was referring to the country music industry's newfound love for pop sounds, a sentiment that still applies in the modern day. Jennings, more than any of the outlaws, epitomized this era of battling the now oft-abused Nashville Sound. He became a spokesman for the iconoclastic outlaw movement, and, incidentally, has an encyclopedic knowledge of country music history.
Jennings was born in Littlefield, Texas, and influenced heavily by the sound of WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, especially by stars Ernest Tubb, Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers. After quitting high school to pursue music, Waylon found himself in Lubbock at radio station KLLL as a popular disc jockey. There, Jennings cemented his friendship with Buddy Holly. When Holly put together his new band in 1958, he took Jennings along as his bass player. Though Waylon rarely plays bass anymore, it is no accident that his popular sound of the '70s and early '80s was built around steady, swirling bass rhythms.
Jennings' early success came with producer Chet Atkins beginning in 1965 at RCA Records. Despite the tension between Jennings and Atkins, Waylon turned out several hits, including "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" (1968), and "Just to Satisfy You" (1968). In 1972, he argued for (and won) creative freedom, unheard of at the time on Music Row.
Jennings' Outlaw persona defined songs like "Amanda" (1974), "Rainy Day Woman" (1974) and "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" (1977). A live album recorded in Texas yielded a wild Jimmie Rodgers re-interpretation, "T for Texas," (with a Memphis beat but no yodel), and a deceptively complex new tune, "Bob Wills is Still the King." Also included here is a rare Waylon original "The Taker." With Willie Nelson, Jennings recorded, “Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” a No. 1 single in 1979.
By the early 1980s, Jennings was completely addicted to cocaine. His personal finances had again unraveled, leaving him bankrupt, though he insisted on repaying every penny and did additional tours to satisfy the debt. He would kick his cocaine addiction in the mid-1980s, and remained a touring act well into the '90s, but his bad health eventually caught up to him. On February 13, 2002, Jennings died in his sleep of diabetic complications in Chandler, Arizona, just months after his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Country's most charismatic living legend, Merle Haggard is proof that you don't have to forsake your musical roots to achieve fame. The Haggard family, driven from their farm in dustbowl East Oklahoma, were living in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, California, when Merle was born on April 6, 1937. Haggard was nine years old when his father, a competent fiddle player, died; without his father's influence, he found trouble with the law. He embarked on a series of petty thefts and frauds and was in and out of local prisons. Then, in 1957, he was charged with attempted burglary and sentenced to six to fifteen years in San Quentin.
Haggard was stationed in San Quentin when Johnny Cash performed one of his famous prison concerts in 1958. When he left jail in 1960, he was determined to make a career as a performer. He moved to Bakersfield, then a growing country music center. Helped initially by Buck Owens, and his soon-to-be wife, Bonnie, he started playing the local club scene. Haggard also ran into Fuzzy Owen, an Arkansas musician who was also playing the Bakersfield clubs. Owen encouraged Haggard and helped him find work locally, a partnership that has remained for almost 50 years.
In 1962, Fuzzy organized some recording sessions in a converted 'garage' studio and produced some singles, which were released on Tally, a label Owens had purchased from his cousin Lewis Tally. The next year, Haggard made his debut on the country charts with "Sing a Sad Song," which reached No.19. In 1965, they released "(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers," giving Haggard his firstTop 10 hit. This success led to Capitol acquiring Merle's contract, plus all recordings made for Tally. Haggard's second Capitol single, the self penned classic honky-tonker, "Swinging Doors," spent six months on the charts in 1966, reaching the Top 5. "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive” (his first No.1 single) highlighted a tremendous year.
Haggard's two most famous songs were committed to record in 1969: "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me." "Okie" re-stated redneck values in disturbance and Vietnam marches, yet Haggard had written it as a joke, picking up a remark one of his band members had made about the conservative habits of Oklahoma natives as they rolled through Muskogee. "Fightin' Side of Me" was another apparent put-down of those who were so bold as to disparage America's image. When Haggard premiered "Okie" for a crowd of NCOs at Fort Bragg, N.C., the crowd was vociferous in its approval, and the song remains legendary in spite of its intent.
On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another No.1 country hit for Haggard, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan gave him a full pardon for his past crimes. During the early to mid 1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like “Someday We'll Look Back,” “Carolyn,” “Grandma Harp,” “Always Wanting You” and “The Roots of My Raising.” The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. He also wrote and performed the theme song to the TV series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another #1 country hit. Haggard was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977, and his success continued through the early '80s with a new label Epic Records.
Although the stream of hits died in the late '80s, Haggard opened shows for Clint Black by 1991, and several artists (including Diamond Rio, Lee Roy Parnell, and others) collaborated on Mama's Hungry Eyes, a 1994 tribute album to Haggard and his music. An inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, Haggard owns 40 No.1 singles, third-most all time.