Country 'outlaws' changed the sound of music in Nashville 15 years ago

September 09, 1991|By Gary Graff | Gary Graff,Knight-Ridder

Fifteen years ago, the outlaws took over Nashville.

They rode into town wearing cowboy hats, carrying six-strings instead of six-shooters and sporting scowls instead of scarves. They broke the laws of country music: Instead of letting the record companies dictate which producers and back-up musicians they'd use, the outlaws insisted on working with people of their own choosing and pursued their own artistic visions.

They held up the town and got away scot-free. "Wanted: The Outlaws," a 1976 release by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jennings' wife Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser, became the first country album to sell a million copies. To date, it's sold more than 5 million and is the best-selling country album of all time.

More than sales, however, the record brought about an irreversible change in the way music was made in Music City, U.S.A.

"It was a movement, and it had a huge impact on Nashville," says Bill Ivey, director of the Country Music Foundation. And the winners were the performers. "It took country away from being a producer's music and gave more control to them."

Ironically, there were no grand artistic designs for the album that started this landmark movement. It was just the result of a record executive trying to keep up sales.

"Let me tell you, it was my . . . trying to keep a job," says a laughing Jerry Bradley who, as vice president in charge of RCA Records' Nashville office, produced "Wanted: The Outlaws." "It wasn't anything to do with the music; there wasn't anything rebellious about it, sound-wise. It was a marketing scheme more than anything else."

To place such a scheme in context, it's important to understand the state of country music in the mid-'70s. The genre was ruled by what was known as the Nashville Sound, a blend of country instrumentation and pop music production values that began during the early '60s. There were plenty of twanging guitars and songs about heartbreak and drunken nights. But they were layered with such pop touches as strings and background vocals.

In Nashville, this music was being made by a closed and close-knit group of producers and musicians. Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Don Law and Billy Sherrill ran the sessions, often writing composing the biggest hits with the same core of players. "Those guys would sometimes do four sessions a day, going from studio to studio,," says Ivey. "The effect of their performance was to give every Nashville record a certain similar quality in terms of the instrumental accompaniment."

Around the same time, however, came a cadre of musicians who found the Nashville scene stifling. "By the middle '70s, you had a whole generation of singers and songwriters who were uncomfortable being cast in that whole Nashville Sound," Ivey says. "After 15 years of that approach, the artistic community was chafing a little bit."

Jennings was among them. "Instruments don't make country," he told an interviewer. "We're entitled to a heavy rock beat if it complements our songs. Or if we want to use a kazoo played through a sewer pipe, that's all right, too. Why should we lock ourselves in?"

Nelson, meanwhile, felt that the future outlaw musicians weren't the only country lovers alienated by Nashville. These fans, Nelson said, "didn't have any place to go to listen to country music. Their hair was too long to get into some of those places without getting into trouble . . . but I knew there was an audience there."

After kicking around for 20 years, Nelson in the early '70s was not a big country star. Neither was Jennings, though he was somewhat more successful than his future partner. Both were Texans and were viewed as outsiders, and their refusal to play the Nashville game had limited their potential for success.

No one knew this better than producer Bradley. But in 1974, after Jennings released a trio of his most successful albums -- "This Time," "Ramblin' Man" and "Dreaming My Dreams" -- "we had a big push on trying to make Waylon a superstar," Bradley says.

So Bradley came up the idea of putting together some of Jennings' songs with tracks of Nelson, Colter and Glaser that were in RCA's vaults, some of which were several years old. The Jennings-Nelson duet on "Good Hearted Woman," in fact, was not even live; Bradley dubbed in applause in the studio. "It was not a perfect outlaw album," Ivey says.

Furthermore, Bradley says, the Outlaw tag for the album was "insignificant"; it was the name of the booking agency the performers used, and the producer acknowledges that if the agency "had been called something else, we'd have called it that."

It's hard to say just what made "Wanted: The Outlaws" such an instant and massive hit. After all, it was just a collection of leftover tracks.

Image was certainly part of it; the album cover was a mock criminal wanted poster that certainly fit the musicians' reputations. "They had attitudes," Bradley says. "They didn't like to be messed with . . . though I felt I always had a very good working situation with Waylon."

Lon Shelton, the Nashville bureau chief for the music trade paper Radio & Records, adds that the music of the Outlaws "was a little edgier. It was a hard-driving kind of sound that was outside the norm."

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