A sterile-sounding genre is revived by an injection of illicit creativity. SOPHIA DEBOICK on the musicians who put the soul into rural America’s music
At the mid-point of the 1970s rock was in its pomp. The Who set a record for the biggest indoor concert (78,000 at Pontiac, Michigan in December). Led Zeppelin sold out Madison Square Garden three times over and five Earls Court dates.
The Rolling Stones announced a forthcoming tour and debuted their new guitarist, Ronnie Wood, by playing Brown Sugar on the back of a truck going down Fifth Avenue. Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was No.1 for nine weeks over Christmas and into 1976.
Dr Feelgood’s Down By The Jetty consolidated the no-nonsense pub rock trend and a new star, Bruce Springsteen, played two legendary gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon in November, and showed that American rock too was going back to basics.
None of this would have been possible without country, or Hillbilly, as it had once been, as much a part of rock and roll’s DNA as the blues. By the early 1970s country was in a state of byzantine decadence, but 1975 was the year it had an epiphany. The release of an album dubbed ‘the Sgt. Pepper’s of Country music’ kick-started a new movement which changed the genre forever and launched an American legend.
In 1975, country was riding high and confirmed its mainstream appeal, with six singles reaching the top of both the Country and Billboard Hot 100 charts, including the characteristically verbosely-titled (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song by B.J. Thomas, two hits by John Denver and Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy.
Nashville’s Music Row was a hit machine, with the best session musicians and recording facilities attracting rock as well as country artists. Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde had famously been recorded there almost a decade before and the Nashville offices of major record labels had become all-powerful. But while this had led to commercial success, the almost feudal system of tight artist control by executives and imposition of a smooth, sentimental and radio-friendly ‘Nashville sound’ had resulted in creative sterility.
It was against this background that Willie Nelson had struggled to establish a career on the incestuous Nashville scene, and despite writing the Patsy Cline hit Crazy, among others, signing to RCA in 1964 and joining the Grand Ole Opry the following year, he gained exposure but little success. Quitting mainstream music in 1971 he moved to Austin, Texas, became a local legend on the alternative scene and returned to music via a contract with Atlantic.
As the label’s first country artist, he was exposed to a rock sensibility and he released the critically acclaimed Shotgun Willie in 1973 and Phases and Stages, country music’s first concept album, inspired by his recent divorce, the following year. But a deal with Columbia Records, negotiated by Nelson’s new manager, the irrepressible Neil Reshen, who had represented such difficult personalities as Frank Zappa and Miles Davis, was the real turning point for both him and the music he loved.
When signing with Columbia, Nelson insisted on full creative control – anathema on the country scene of the time. The result was the sparse and beautiful Red Headed Stranger. Recorded at an obscure Texan studio over five days in January 1975, with his sister Bobbie playing piano, the album had such a stripped-down sound that record company executives thought it was just a demo tape. Principally made up of cover versions, the album was inspired by country TV star Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith’s song Tale of the Red Headed Stranger about a grieving wanderer who kills a woman for touching his dead wife’s horse (‘The yellow-haired lady was buried at sunset/ The stranger went free, of course/ For you can’t hang a man for killing a woman/ Who’s trying to steal his horse’). Nelson made this into a larger backstory about a crime of passion and long journey to redemption, using his unique voice and skill as a storyteller to weave other artist’s material together with his own to create something with the tone of almost Biblical myth.
Red Headed Stranger would come to be regarded as a key album in the Outlaw country movement, led by stars who defied Nashville’s prescriptions, made their own artistic choices and adopted a more introspective mood, swapping hairsprayed bouffants for the shaggy locks of the drifter.
The rock and roll giants of the 60s and 70s, for whom artistic autonomy was everything, had shown the way, and the Outlaws also took inspiration from the countercultural influences consolidating around Nashville’s Vanderbilt University and the city’s bohemian West End. Johnny Cash had been the original country outsider, his ‘man in black’ image, drug arrests, activism for Native Americans and prison concert albums placing him in sharp opposition to the inane glitz of Nashville’s mainstream output. But it was Waylon Jennings who would be seen as the pioneer of Outlaw proper. Jennings, Nelson’s fellow Texan and Cash’s former flatmate in his most amphetamine-fuelled days, already had legendary status as Buddy Holly’s bass player who was meant to be on the plane that crashed, killing the star and his tourmates, in 1959.
Jennings had success in the 1960s, but had been continually pushed away from his country-rock roots by RCA. By the early 1970s he was in debt and burnt out, and his enlisting of Neil Reshen to renegotiate his RCA contract to include absolute artistic freedom pre-dated Nelson’s. 1973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean announced a new Jennings, with gutsy backing from his live band, the Waylors, and the moody black and white cover photo by Mick Rock showing he had abandoned his Brylcreemed quiff and stagey suits for a ruggedly hairy look and cowboy clothes. Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) went even further in its rock and roll attitude and 1975’s Dreaming My Dreams became Jennings’ first No.1 album on the country charts. Its opening track, Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way referenced Hank Williams and was a kind of Outlaw manifesto, asking of Nashville ‘Where do we take it from here?/ Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars/ It’s been the same way for years/ We need a change’.
No one represented that change more than Rhodes scholar and former Army helicopter pilot Kris Kristofferson, who spent the late 1960s doing odd jobs on the fringes of Nashville before becoming a songwriter to be reckoned with. Johnny Cash recorded his Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, and the lyrics summed up Kristofferson’s poetic treatment of the down and out, a common Outlaw motif: ‘I woke up Sunday morning/ With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ So I had one more for dessert.’ An anti-war activist and advocate for farm worker unions, Kristofferson injected the Outlaw movement with political nouse long before Nelson got politicised, becoming country’s Dylan. Country wasn’t the only genre innovating in this year. With emergent disco, high soul, and pop of varying quality on the charts (after all, The Goodies had five UK top 20 singles in 1975, including The Funky Gibbon), on the New York underground Talking Heads made their CBGB debut in June, and off the back of regular performances at the legendary club, the Ramones were picked up by Sire Records.
In November the Sex Pistols played their first gig, a 15 minute set in the common room at Central St. Martins. Meanwhile, Brian Eno was busy pioneering ambient music, with the release of Another Green World and Discreet Music. Cinema was immersed in music that year. Kubrick’s magisterial Barry Lyndon would make Handel’s Sarabande one of the great movie themes and John Williams’ theme to Jaws, which broke grossing records on its June release, became an international earworm. The Rocky Horror Picture Show joined Ken Russell’s Tommy and Lisztomania, both starring Roger Daltrey, in its outrageous musical narrative and kaleidoscopic visual effect.
Musical revolution was joined by political change. Globally, dictators rose and fell, as the Khmer Rouge took control over Cambodia and began a four year reign of terror and Franco’s death in November saw the end of a 35 year European dictatorship.
Thatcher became Tory leader in February and parliamentary sittings began to be broadcast on radio. Britain faced ructions over the June referendum on Britain staying in the Common Market. The National Front marched against further EEC integration and the Labour Party voted to leave the market, but 67% of the British public voted to remain. For the US, it was in some respects the end of tumultuous times. The fall of Saigon in April saw the end of the Vietnam War and there were convictions in the Watergate Scandal.
As the musical backbone of white, rural America, country was a significant cultural force for the nation during good times and bad, and 1976 saw the solidification of the Outlaw movement with the release of Wanted! The Outlaws. A compilation of pre-released material from Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, it capitalised on the notoriety of the Outlaws, and what had been a reaction against commercialisation became a crossover sensation. It was the first country album to sell over a million and receive platinum certification.
1977’s Waylon and Willie achieved the same feat and the pair’s duet Good Hearted Woman, recorded in 1975, became a Top 30 Billboard hit. 1978’s Stardust, an album of popular standards, was a multimillion seller for Nelson, and he and Cash, Jennings and Kristofferson would go on to form the country supergroup The Highwaymen in the next decade. Today, octogenarian Willie Nelson is one of country’s rare liberals, a pigtailed cannabis farmer, biofuel entrepreneur, and supporter of equal marriage. He remains the symbol of what Outlaw country was about – freedom and integrity. The Outlaws had taken the music of America’s heartlands back to its origins of odes to love and loss told by the world weary, reinstalling creativity at the heart of a genre losing its soul.
Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick