Though outlaw Country became a “thing” in the 1950’s, it wasn’t called outlaw until Waylon Jennings’ 1972 album “Ladies Love Outlaws” (though some claim the name came from David Allen Coe, who was a patched member of the Outlaws 1% motorcycle club).
Outlaw country was characterized by looks - long hair and a scruffy denim and leather look, unlike clean cut Nashville country singers in rhinestone suits - and subject matter. The songs were about drinking, drugs, honky tonk heroes and other topics that were considered too “risky” or too “real” for mainstream country. The music was more like rock and roll, and outlaw country singers were always men. Only a few women ever entered the arena (Tanya Tucker, Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith, and Emmylou Harris). Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard were top outlaw country heroes.
The state of today’s country music is pitiful, and there have been no credible outlaw country singers in recent memory. Nashville has taken a turn for the worse with studio manufactured, machine made Nashville pop “bro country” becoming the norm. True country music fans believe “real” country music and outlaw country music are dead.
Can country music be saved? Move over boys, this is a job for the ladies. Here are five notable female acts who are kicking ass, taking names, not giving two fucks what anyone thinks, having a ball doing it - and saving outlaw country in the process.
5. Nikki Lane
Lane is a high school drop out from South Carolina who also operates a used clothing store, High Class Hillbilly, in Nashville. She’s been compared to Wanda Jackson and Neko Case. In “Right Time” Lane makes it clear that “Any day or night time, it’s always the right time, it’s always the right time, to do the wrong thing.” Lane has bona fide outlaw credentials with her twangy, in-your-face songs that are full of piss and swagger. Outlaw country purists may claim that dressing in short skirts and plunging necklines put her more in line with mainstream country, but her lyrics and attitude beg to differ. Outlaw has always meant doing whatever the fuck you want, and in your face to anyone who doesn’t like it.
4. Kacey Musgraves
Growing up in Texas, Musgraves was a fan of John Prine, Glenn Campbell, Marty Robbins and Loretta Lynn. Musgraves doesn’t get much radio play, though both of her last albums topped the Billboard Country chart. Like Lane, Musgraves favors clothing that show off her assets to full advantage and is clearly beautiful. But is a scruffy appearance absolutely imperative to the outlaw country ethos, or is the outlaw mentality defined more by doing exactly what you please and damn the haters? Musgraves has no desire to play the Nashville fame game, and her hope is to be able maintain her privacy and sense of humor through it all. As she says in her song “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” “Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me.” Take that, Nashville.
3. Lydia Loveless
Loveless is an Ohio native who isn’t afraid to take risks, in fact, there’s seemingly nothing she won’t sing about. Her third album includes songs about doing blow at a party, trying to break up her ex’s marriage, and pleading with her lover to give her oral sex. Her lyrics are direct (“I just like it so much better when we’re coming to blows”) and often explicit (“Don’t stop giving me head”). Her willingness to take on any topic, no matter how grim, gives her major outlaw country status. Loveless doesn’t fancy or pretty herself up as much as Lane or Musgraves, but she does overtly sexualize her performances. Some have argued that sexualizing one’s image in any way simply detracts attention from your talent, and is unnecessary for these totally badass singers. But others feel that expressing sexuality in any way is simply more proof of outlaw, don’t-give-a-fuck status.
2. Margo Price
Price hails from Illinois but has called Nashville home for a dozen years. After selling her car and wedding ring to get the funds to make her record at Sun Studios, it was rejected by every country label. All that changed when Jack White’s Third Man Records picked her up, and she’s been a major media presence ever since. The attention has worked - her album hit the Billboard chart the week of its release. “I Put A Hurtin’ on the Bottle” is a rollicking drunken ode to “ridin’ high on low expectations” and the equally gritty “Since You Put Me Down” has Price killing the angel on her shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams in response to a cheating lover. Price does not sexualize her appearance, and is proud of her twice-broken nose, but she does favor fancy and frilly dresses from time to time. To those who have argued that you can’t be outlaw while looking like Loretta Lynn, we argue that though Price may look and sound like Loretta Lynn her attitude is all Hank Jr.
1. Sarah Shook
Shook is a badass female country singers who’s, well, relentlessly badass. If scruffiness is required for outlaw status, Shook lives completely up to the look, performing with what appears to be complete disregard for her appearance. If your first impression is of shabbiness, that impression will leave you as soon as she opens her mouth. Hard driving, razor sharp lyrics that cut through your brain like a laser, and backed up by the astoundingly talented Disarmers, Shook never gives into sentimentality. Her lyrics focus singularly on the hardships of life, although they never lose hope. What seems to be a bleak and desolate situation is saved by the witty lyrics and upbeat, country-with-a-touch-of-punk delivery. Her album “Sidelong” is a must have for any outlaw country fan. There are a couple truly standouot songs, but you can play it over and over - there’s not a weak song in the bunch. When was the last time you could say that about any album? “Drinkin’ water tonight cuz I drank all the whiskey this morning” laments a lover who’s been jilted for a country star look alike in “Dwight Yoakum,” and the rollicking country tune “The Nail” bemoans a relationship gone bad with “I ain’t your last you ain’t my first, I can’t decide which fact is worst.” When it comes to living up to the “true” outlaw country image, Shook brooks no nonsense with words, looks or deeds.
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