Way back in 1976 a guy named James Szalapski delivered a masterpiece of a documentary that’s revered to this day. Called it Heartworn Highways. What he captured on film was a snapshot of some of the most influential independent and roots/traditional artists America has ever birthed. There were names on the roster that no one remembers now, but there were others whose shadow looms large over serious songwriters in this 21st century and whose bodies of work have been soundtracks for countless lives.
But of course in the ‘70s, everybody knew the whole Progressive Country thing – which largely became the Outlaw country and/or the Americana thing – was a big deal. Maybe the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy character/caricature was something of a joke, but the songs he was singing were not. Maybe Larry Jon Wilson never got his due, but a young Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell went on to become strong musical forces. Townes van Zandt was in there, along with Steve Young. Steve’s still touring today, and his son Jubal Lee Young is a serious artist in his own right.
Heartworn Highways hit some nerves, hit some high notes, maybe had a dip here and there, but ultimately was one of the best primers for what was happening with independent minded artists in the 1970s that anyone could have come up with.
Thirty-seven years later, it’s 2013. Waylon and Johnny and Townes and the Possum and Gary Stewart are all gone. It’s a Justin Bieber world where the Kardashians get rich off of stupidity and everyone loves a good porn star. Celebrity’s the ticket, see. Get famous, cash in. Doesn’t matter what you’re famous for. Just get there.
That attitude has destroyed any lingering vestiges of true country music coming out of Nashville’s Music Row. And unless you’ve done your homework on SiriusXM and the internet to find alt/indie programming, you may not even be aware that an antidote for Jason Aldean exists. But it does. There’s a burgeoning and downright stout “outlaw” culture alive and well in 2013; there are artists bubbling under the mainstream radar who skip the payola plan and just do their thing. Do it well enough to carve out a living, in fact. And it’s those artists and their powerful work which drew Neil Hamilton’s attention.
When Hamilton began writing Outlaws Still at Large, he was in a downward spiral. Losing a mother can do that to a man, and Neil makes no bones nor excuses about the impact losing his mom had on him. He’d for decades found solace in the music of the old Outlaws – Coe and Jennings and Nelson and Paycheck and the like – but he needed something new to help him as he faced current, fresh, and ripping loss. Didn’t know anyone was even making that kind of music anymore.
Then he ran across Jackson Taylor.
For my money, and as you’re well aware if you’ve read my stuff here at Outlaw and predecessor mags over the years, nobody’s got a better right to the “outlaw country” moniker these days than the claim Taylor can stake. Craziest man I know. Also the most honest, one of the most well-read, easily one of the most intelligent souls my path has ever crossed. Passionate to a fault. Jack’s music was a revelation to Neil, and as they talked, Jack finally suggested a book. Pushed for it, really. Hamilton backpedaled, pondered, and finally with the support of his wife said yes. That’s where it began. The long haired hippie professor from Alabama decided he’d take up the torch and tell the tale of Outlaw Country as it exists in the space age where nukes and rootkits are equally dangerous and the stakes change as quickly as technology evolves.
Not an easy task, particularly given that Hamilton had no idea what artists were out there. He’d need detective work to make this happen.
And gas money. Lots of gas money.
But he took the plunge. The book that resulted is perhaps the most important standalone chronicle of independent music since Heartworn Highways. And like that gem from the disco age, it has its misses. But when it connects, it’s out of the park lightning quick.
To Hamilton’s credit, one of the things he reiterates throughout the book is that it is by no means intended to be definitive. Going in, he knew that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. Not a bad place to start from, long as one avoids climbing towers and blowing horns as if it’s all been figured out. Neil never does that in this work. His humility coupled with a passion to learn and find the new which ties to the old forge a consistent thread throughout.
My guess is that if he redid the book today, he’d leave some people out who made it in. And that’s okay. There’s a curve to this whole learning thing. But with one glaring (to me) exception, I’ll say this unequivocally: Hamilton didn’t include artists who don’t warrant a spot in the discussion. They may be at different levels talent- and catalog-wise, but the overwhelming majority deserve the mention and/or deep dive look they’re afforded here. Some of the artists Neil picked are new to me; several I’ve heard of but have not ever actually heard. The handy companion CD which accompanies the book provides a quick remedy for that little hiccup.
Perhaps the biggest challenge Hamilton faced with this work was tying the current crop of independent and strong-willed artists back not only to the original Outlaws, but more importantly, to the roots of what constitute country music. To effect that goal, he went all the way back to the beginning. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and others coming down from the hills to record with Ralph Peer on the now laughable but then cutting edge 78s Peer was lugging around. Hamilton takes readers back to those days in engaging and illuminating fashion, while educating newbies on just how it was that country music as a genre came to be. Follows that thread up through the genesis of what became the Nashville Machine, that hoary entity whose repetitive production led Waylon and Willie to walk away to begin with.
Fascinating history, well told. That’s what the first quarter or so of Outlaws Still at Large comes down to. For those who know the path already, it’s a refreshing reminder of where the old goodness came from. For those who haven’t heard the story, it’s illuminating and engaging all at once.
When Hamilton gets down to business looking at who’s filling whose shoes today, things get incredibly interesting. Jackson Taylor’s segment spotlights the intelligence, education, and brutal self-assessment which flavor everything Taylor produces. Joey Allcorn goes into detail about the influence Hank Williams and the ghost of his legacy have had on his career. Dale Watson, perhaps the staunchest and most visible defender of traditional country music working today, holds forth on topics ranging from why it all matters to why it won’t change. Then goes out and sings his soul regardless.
J.B. Beverley lent the book some attention when he provided a quote noting how disappointing it was that when Toby Keith went indie and started his own label, the stuff he churned out sounded just like The Machine. Beverley pulls no punches in the interview segment where this comes up, and the response from Keith involved calling into Shooter Jennings’ show and throwing out statements involving kicking Beverley’s ass. J.B.’s response? Tell him let’s do it. Put the gloves on, get in the ring, donate all the proceeds to charity. No word from the Keith camp at the time of this writing. And no surprise there, frankly.
Outlaws Still at Large is an engaging read. Puts me in mind of one of my favorite non-fiction works, W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo. In that fine book, Stratton sets out on the circuit of purest Americana in search of his dad, a rodeo man who never stayed and thus who Stratton never knew. His personal journey as he rides to Cheyenne and Alberta and Oklahoma and all the smaller rodeos in between somehow shifts during the journey. At first it’s simple yet compelling snippets of personal history coupled with genuine pure dee rodeo knowledge. Freckles Brown, Jim Shoulders, Larry Mahan, you name it. But by the end, the journey itself and the lessons it’s yielded have morphed into something far more substantial, more comforting somehow, and also something of a challenge to live this life well.
I re-read Stratton’s book every year or two without fail; it draws me in. Hamilton’s is in that same vein. His journey also underwent a metamorphosis, and the lessons learned are clearly visible throughout the entire body of work.
Purists will quibble about inclusions in Outlaws Still At Large. They’ll quibble about what constitutes “outlaw” to begin with. They’ll definitely make a stink over exclusions. But hey, that’s what purists do. For the rest of us, Neil Hamilton has brought to vivid life through detailed snapshots and point-in-time interviews the world of artists out there riding their passions and the costs be damned. It’s fitting that the book leads off with Taylor and ends with Jason Boland. Two sides of the same coin, those boys. Excellent examples of the breadth and range involved in making music one’s own way.
Shooter Jennings provides some fine insights into what it mean to be Waylon’s little boy, and Elizabeth Cook displays a side of her personality and mindset and gumption that should make anyone want to go learn what she’s doing. There are nods to punk rock and the deep-seated foundation underpinning that genre and country, at least the outlaw kind. While some of the GG Allin allusions make sense, perhaps in his next work Hamilton will spend some time with The Von Ehrics or maybe even Mike Ness. Which means nothing more than that one of the greatest things about independent/outlaw music is that there’s always another highway to ride, always another byway to explore.
Always another treasure to find. Hamilton’s given us one with Outlaws Still At Large. Recommended reading for anyone who loves a soul poured out on a six-string.
NOTE: There’s a companion CD available with the book; it’s a sampler with one or two songs from the current artists covered. Worth your money and your time. Hamilton paid attention when selecting the tracks, and did a great job of providing new listeners a sense of signature sound as well as the beating heart of each artist.
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
Outlaw Magazine. Country, Rock and Roll, Blues, Folk, Americana, Punk. As long as it is real, it is OUTLAW. Overproduced mediocrity need not apply.