Exhibit shows country music’s outlaws, poets, pickers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If the term “outlaw countryã evokes images of Willie Nelsonás hippie braids or Waylon Jenningsá âHonky Tonk Heroes,ã then youáll want to see a new museum exhibit offering a deeper look at the poets, pickers and characters that revolutionized country music in the 1970s.
In the more than four decades since Nelson left Nashville in 1970, the term âoutlawã has become a profitable way of branding the scene that stretched from recording studios in Music City to hippies and rednecks in Austin, Texas.
But for the artists that experienced it firsthand, the movement was less about breaking laws and more about pushing back on traditional production techniques, wresting creative control from their labels and turning their focus to song craft.
âAll of the main characters in the outlaw movement were poets, or if not, had the poetás soul,ã said Rodney Crowell, the Texas-born singer songwriter who came to Nashville in the à70s.
The âOutlaws and Armadillos: Countryás Roaring à70sã exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which opened last month and runs through 2021, features never-before-seen photos and interviews with iconic musicians from the era, unique memorabilia, instruments, stage costumes, original artwork and concert posters, as well as special programs and speakers. Displays include Kris Kristoffersonás Army uniform, Guy Clarkás Randall knife, Nelsonás sneakers, a stuffed armadillo and a copper still for making bootleg whiskey that was donated by Tom T. Hall.
Austin-based filmmaker Eric Geadelmann, a co-curator of the exhibit, put together videos for the exhibitás eight screens featuring interviews with Kristofferson, Clark, Jessi Colter, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and more.
The exhibitás walls are lined with dozens of concert posters, many of them from illustrator Jim Franklin, who designed surrealistic artwork for concerts held at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin.
âAustin was grounded in red-dirt Texas music, but there was also psychedelia in the air,ã said Peter Cooper, one of the museumás curators.
The exhibit also emphasizes how radio station KOKE-FM and the longtime public television program âAustin City Limits,ã both helped promote the progressive country sounds.
âIt was hippie girls and pot and endless places to play music live,ã Crowell said. âIt was freedom from the constraints of the recording studio and three-hour sessions.ã
One iconic record of that period was a concept album dreamed up by Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein, the Chicago-born poet, illustrator, author and songwriter. Bare was given carte blanche to come up with his own ideas in the studio and he wanted something different.
âI tried to get all the great songwriters in Nashville to write me a great album with a thread going through it that all made sense, rather than just an album full of rejects that didnát make it as a single,ã Bare said.
âBobby Bare Sings Lullabys, Legends and Lies,ã featured Silversteinás characters, a vein of irreverent humor and a recorded laugh track. The reverberations from the album shook up Nashville.
âIt was tremendous,ã Bare said. âIt got everybodyás attention.ã
At the same time, Jennings took the helm as a co-producer on his own albums, working with songwriters like Shaver to craft soulful, defiant country rock anthems that would come to define the outlaw image. He also started picking his own musicians to play on the records, instead of relying on Nashvilleás session players.
Nelsonás records with Atlantic in the early 1970s were also turning the tide, especially his own concept album, âThe Red Headed Stranger.ã
Crowell, the Grammy-winning singer songwriter who is also included in the exhibit, spent his early days in Nashville being mentored by songwriting giants such as Townes Van Zandt and Clark and his wife Susanna.
He didnát realize the impact those writers had on changing country music until he went to Nelsonás Fourth of July picnic in 1974. An estimated 25,000 people had gathered at the Texas World Speedway to see Nelson, Jennings, Van Zandt, Leon Russell, Walker and Kinky Friedman.
âWhen you looked out at that sea of music fans out there that were celebrating that music, thatás the first time that I had any sense that it was bigger than the little life that I was living,ã Crowell said.
But the outlaw movement was short-lived. âWanted! The Outlawsã featuring Nelson, Jennings, Colter and Tompall Glaser, became a platinum-selling album in 1976. A year later, Jennings was arrested for cocaine possession in a Nashville studio, but charges were later dropped. By 1978 the era had peaked and Jennings released his song âDonát You Think This Outlaw Bitás Done Got Out of Hand.ã
âI think Waylon bristled at the catchall phrase outlaw,ã Crowell said. âBecause of the self-respect you have as an artist, you donát want to be pigeonholed, even if itás a cool thing like being called an outlaw. Because even that can become confining.ã
A companion CD set of the same name is available through Sony Musicás Legacy Recordings, and the museum is selling a companion book featuring essays, photos and artwork.
If you go
OUTLAWS & ARMADILLOS: COUNTRY’S ROARING ’70S: Through February 2021. Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. South, Nashville, https://countrymusichalloffame.orgor 615-416-2001. Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $25.95, kids 6-12, $15.95. Children 5 and under free.