(Photos: Justin Townes Earle at the Mercy Lounge courtesy of http://halfwaytojackson.blogspot.com/; Those Darlins at the Backdoor Playhouse)
When Jeff Bridges collected the Oscar for his role as the grizzled badboy country troubadour Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, I embraced it as a victory for the outlaw country genre of musical culture. More than simply a career-topping moment for Bridges, which of course it is, the movie represents the resilience of both the sound and sensibility of outlaw country.
Since moving to the south more than a decade ago, I've been increasingly obsessed with the social and sonic crevices where rock, folk, and country collide. Despite the musically and culturally homogenous stereotypes associated with the Nashville industry proper, there's always been a gritty alternative to the mainstream that's as indigenous to my region as rattlesnakes, four-wheelers, and moonshine.
Outlaw country comes from folks like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, but like most genres today, the boundaries tend towards the fluid and vague. Called everything from Americana to alternative country and increasingly becoming a close kin to freaky indie folk, the latest outlaws borrow contradictory ideas and ethos from both punk and pop as well.
As for tracking this uniquely backwoods pathos, it's been a good winter for me: all out immersion in outlaw country records, movies, and shows and further assimilating an outlaw country perspective, developing my own theories of outlaw country. I'm drawing both from the well-lit legends and from the light-bearers bringing the next wave.
In late January, I mixed two hours of outlaw country for the 71st installment of Teacher On The Radio. Lots of folks added to my education as I spent days researching the playlist, collecting requests, discussing the genre with my Facebook friends, and making new discoveries like Ryan Bingham, Hayes Carll, and Robbie Folks.
Then, on the last Wednesday of January, a friend and I took a life-changing field trip to Nashville. First, we saw Kris Kristofferson perform to a sold-out crowd at the Ryman -- just Kris on the naked stage with the mic, his guitar, and a black metal music stand. More than once, he aplogized for his age or implied that he still didn't feel worthy of the venue where he watched his heroes back in the day.
He didn't just talk between the songs; he talked through them, riding the free association of tangents like a surfer rides waves, interrupting his own interruptions without missing a beat, all in a voice as smooth as crushed gravel and broken glass distilled by a life once marred by whisky and cigarettes. From time to time, he'd blow his nose with a hanky he kept on the music stand. And we didn't mind: it all only added to the show complete with all the standards we paid to see from "Bobby McGee" to "Sunday Mornin Coming Down."
While a Kristofferson show would have been enough on its own, we couldn't deny the synchronicity of the night, so we left the Ryman and headed directly for the Mercy Lounge, just in time to see Justin Townes Earle take the stage. Himself the son of some serious outlaw country lineage, Earle tore through his set with an impressively vast store of charm and charisma. Infused with rockabilly wisdom and rootsy passion, many of his smoky and smokin' originals seem subtly out-of-place in the 21st century. While JTE's reputation surely preceded him, this show was my proper introduction to him and the amazing songs from his most recent record Midnight at the Movies, including "They Killled John Henry," "Halfway to Jackson," and the deeply moving "Mama's Eyes."
Just a few days after those shows, Crazy Heart opened in Nashville. Making another special trip an hour westbound, we decided to take in the film. From the first frames to the final credits, Crazy Heart earns its reputation, not just on the emotionally potent performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhal, but because of its universally appealing and compellingly storyline. The movie reinvents a type that focuses on elements of a musician's struggles with love and addiction, recovery and redemption. With such tested themes, the flick shows traces of biopics like Walk The Line, A Star Is Born, Ray, Talk To Me, and Lady Sings the Blues yet with none of the hilarious cyncism of Walk Hard. This honest fiction breathes the badness of Bad Blake and brings the breath of love to save him from himself, thus saving vulnerable viewers from ourselves.
By the end of February, we had to hear the original outlaw country artist himself on his birthday when Rick Rubin released Ain't No Grave, the last posthumous Johnny Cash album and the last installment in the American series. Cash carries this sparse collection of popular gospel-folk hymns with the rugged intimacy of his vocals on the title track as well as on spiritual stunners like "Redemption Day," "I Corinthians 15:55," "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," or the epic standard and always truthful "Satisfied Mind." Put this album on the headphones to end the day or greet the dawn and rest assured, you might feel the simultaneously comforting and haunting presence of the deceased icon, his soul bursting from every stanza, the vehicle of his voice invoking the higher power some of us call God.
In early March, Murfreesboro's Those Darlins and Jill Andrews of east Tennessee visited Cookeville for a very special night of music at the Backdoor Playhouse. Both the sweetness Andrews' soaring sound and the gritty cowpunk of the Darlins' down-and-dirty ditties offer different options on the current alternative country continuum. The sheer beauty of Andrews' pipes, especially touching on tender tracks like "Sweetest in the Morning," could put her in league with pop icons like Joni Mitchell or Sarah McLachlan.
The Darlins, on the other hand, bring the noisy clamor of punked-out bar rock to the twangy epiphany of an empowered femininity, a kind of raucous, rowdy, and often drunken romanticism. As downtown as they are downhome, the Darlins deal with the devilish tempations of daily life as no longer the province of masculine protagonists, presenting a positive message that's merely implied by the gutsy nature of sometimes nasty topics.
For decades, I've theorized that the best art dances in the intersection at the delicate and messy collision of sexuality, spirituality, and social issues. Outlaw country deals in all these in surprisingly blunt and beautifullly paradoxical and basically problematic ways. There's nothing close to a consensus that could ever define this genre and too many suggestions to approach a working definition might defy the outlaw nature of the project. Even still, I'll hazard my current working thesis on the music.
To begin, outlaw country comes working class roots and exposes itself with a raw unihibited treatment of scandalous topics too risky for the rigidity of regular radio airplay, such as honest boasts about sins of the flesh involving sex, drugs, and booze. Although addicton runs rampant in the lyrics and most likely the lives of many outlaws, for some, a path of recovery and sobriety often follows the wild living (and songs about it).
While not all outlaw country is necessarily the left-wing alternative on the fringes of the larger genre, it certainly can't be pigeonholed by the conservative trends in the mainstream country demographic. Moreover, outlaw country stretches the narrow gender roles of mainstream music as it grapples with masculinity and femininity in some interesting ways in a post-Brokeback Mountain period. A lot of songs by male musicians show a deep and abiding respect for mothers and maternal vibes as well.
Finally, whether its wild women drinkin' whisky or outlaw men undermining right-wing stereotypes, there's a potent leveling and equalizing sense of humanity and humility throughout outlaw country. For many, this humility stems from or is rooted in a religious sensibility. Years ago, Maria McKee released a record called You Got To Sin To Get Saved, and this may capture the paradoxical outlaw theory perfectly: as outlaws, we don't pretend to be saintly and aren't even necessarily ashamed of our sins, but we do recognize sin as sin and want to know that there's a way out of the outlaw's wordly challenges, at least in a spiritual sense.
I get this notion that country music is no less hedonistic than other popular music genres in general, but the honest lyrics often lead us back to letting go of the outlaw ego and letting God take both the credit and the blame, thus paying homage to the outlaw that overturned old laws and created new ones based on equality and love.