You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
An Ode to the Outlaws

An Ode to the Outlaws

This holiday weekend, play a little outlaw country music for your kids, if you want to raise ’em right.

James Barnett

Last month, two of America’s most talented country musicians passed away within a few days and a hundred miles of each other. On October 23, Jerry Jeff Walker died of throat cancer at age seventy-eight in Austin, Texas, his adopted home of many years. Five days later, Billy Joe Shaver, age eighty-one, suffered a fatal stroke in Waco.

Though popular in their day, particularly in Texas, neither man ever achieved the nationwide fame or commercial success of artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, or Willie Nelson. Both musicians were childhood favorites of mine (for which I have my parents to thank), but I get the impression that few people my age have even heard of them, which is not too surprising when you consider that their country music was very different from what one hears on the radio today.

Shaver and Walker were in many ways polar opposites. Shaver was a lifelong Texan and good old boy, Walker a Yankee transplant and gonzo hippy. Shaver got his start in the Nashville country scene. Walker’s roots were in folk. Whereas Shaver was more prolific as a songwriter than as a performer, Walker frequently sang others’ lyrics.

Yet despite their differences, both men helped define the original “outlaw country,” a subgenre that reflected their maverick personalities as much as their unorthodox musical styles.

Billy Joe Shaver was born in Corsicana, a small town south of Dallas, in 1939. His father packed up before he was born, leaving Shaver to be raised by his mother and grandmother, with support from the latter’s pension. He was influenced at a young age by the music of Hank Williams, as well as the songs of the black farm workers with whom he picked cotton as a teenager. Shaver dropped out of high school to work full-time in the fields before joining the Navy on his seventeenth birthday. After his discharge, he worked several low-paying jobs around Texas, losing two fingers in a lumber mill accident along the way. The labor was back-breaking, literally: He once broke his back in a fall while working as a roofer.

These humble origins and experiences formed the basis of many of his songs and lent them the air of a man with something to prove (“Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth-grade education / Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way,” he sings in one classic). It wasn’t until he was in his mid-twenties that Shaver taught himself to play guitar, with only three fingers on his dominant hand no less. He decided to take a stab at a career in music, hitchhiking to Nashville only after he failed to find a driver who could take him to Los Angeles.

Shaver got his start in the industry as a songwriter. He crafted most of the tunes for Waylon Jennings’ 1973 hit album Honky Tonk Heroes, but only after tracking Jennings down and threatening to “whip ass” if he didn’t make good on an earlier promise to use Shaver’s lyrics. He also wrote songs for Elvis Presley and Kris Kristofferson, among others. Shaver’s debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was released in 1973. The title track is now considered a classic of the outlaw genre, but at the time the album failed to achieve the same recognition as Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes. Shaver would alternate between Texas and Nashville in subsequent years, though he never quite fit into the latter’s more polished country scene, where the big studios saw him as a loose cannon. Over the course of his career, he would release seventeen studio albums, with his last coming in 2014.

“I’m a songwriter first and then whatever else I do second,” Shaver said in a 2014 interview. “The song is like the cheapest psychiatrist there is.” In 2010, his close friend Willie Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.” Bob Dylan also paid tribute to his lyricism when he sang, “I’m hearing Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.”

Shaver’s minor fame did little to temper his reckless side. He was married and divorced many times, including three separate unions to the same woman. He could easily match his Nashville peers when it came to drinking, and he used hard drugs well into his thirties. Growing old never truly softened this one-time semi-professional rodeo rider. In 2007, at age sixty-seven, Shaver shot a man outside Waco after the two exchanged harsh language in a bar. Shaver turned himself in the following day, posted bail, and went on to play his show that evening as scheduled. During the trial he explained his actions by saying, “I’m from Texas. If I was a chicken shit I would have left.” To his credit, he struck a more conciliatory note upon his acquittal in 2010, apologizing to his victim, whose wounds were reportedly non-life-threatening: “Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet,” he told reporters.

He later turned the incident into a song—the aptly titled “Wacko from Waco.”

Jerry Jeff Walker never showed quite the same pugnacious streak as Shaver, but he was a rebel in his own right. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in 1942, he had a modest upbringing and started playing in a local band in his teens. He joined the National Guard after high school, only to go AWOL and begin hitchhiking around the country, playing music on the streets for loose change. He eventually ended up in New York and settled into the Greenwich Village folk scene. (For a comical rendering of this bohemian community, see the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis.) Crosby used the stage names Jerry Ferris and Jeff Walker before combining the two and legally changing his name in the late 1960s.

Walker has sometimes been called a one-hit wonder, as his 1968 song “Mr. Bojangles” would briefly catapult him to a level of nationwide recognition he would never again achieve. One of his few original compositions, this moving song about an impoverished, wandering entertainer was inspired by the men Walker had encountered in drunk tanks across the country. The song would go on to be covered by Nina Simone, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bob Dylan, among others.

Walker left New York for Austin in the early 1970s and quickly became a mainstay of the budding outlaw country scene there. His 1973 live album, ¡Viva Terlingua!, was recorded in tiny Luckenbach, Texas (population: 3), and helped establish the unincorporated community in the Texas Hill Country as a popular country music venue.

Walker’s early years as a musician were characterized by a couple dozen DUIs and rampant psychedelic drug use. Walker sobered up in the 1980s with the support of his wife, Susan Streit, whom he married in 1974. In contrast to many of his peers, Walker remained married his entire life. He and Susan raised two children together, including the contemporary Texas country singer Django Walker.

Walker never enjoyed major commercial success (though royalties from “Mr. Bojangles” allowed him to establish a charitable foundation and purchase land in Belize for hosting festivals). In the 1980s, his studio, MCA, dropped him. Unfazed, Walker established his own label, Tried & True Music, which sold thousands of his cassettes via mail order. Walker recorded under that label, which his wife Susan managed, for the rest of his prolific career. He released thirty-eight albums in all between 1967 and 2018 and maintained a passionate fan base in Texas, playing rowdy shows well into old age. He recorded his last album, It’s About Time, in 2017, while battling the throat cancer that eventually took his life.

Country music was not particularly popular among my peers in the affluent, liberal suburb of Boston in which I grew up. If my friends listened to country, it was not the classics but the contemporary Top 40. I got the impression that those who listened to pop-country did so at least in part as a political statement. Blasting Toby Keith’s jingoism from your parents’ SUV served as a nice foil to the radical chic of those sporting American Idiot T-shirts.

The Top 40 of my high school days was miles apart from the outlaw sounds my parents raised me on. To be sure, pop-country can be catchy, but it’s little more than that. Most of it sounds like what you would get if you were to fuse the Republican National Convention with the Super Bowl halftime show and throw in a sponsorship from Bud Light for good measure. Critics have referred to the dominant country style of the late aughts and early teens as “bro country,” music characterized by often dated pop-rock elements and myopic lyrics about tailgates and “real America.” By and large, scanning through country radio today yields sounds much like those of the past decade: a series of computer-enhanced commodities aimed at satiating a market increasingly defined by our culture wars.

This isn’t to say that commercialization is unique to the current generation, or that country music was ever apolitical. Merle Haggard released “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 as a kind of rebuke of the flower power types, after all. Nor am I trying to project my own politics onto either Shaver or Walker. (It’s very unlikely the two would have seen eye to eye, for that matter.) Rather, Shaver and Walker were artists of an earlier era whose musical integrity was never impinged by the commercial interests of the big studios. They consequently managed to produce music that was unconventional and compelling in both its style and lyrics.

Their songs touch on a range of issues in American life that you’re unlikely to hear in today’s Top 40. One of Shaver’s darkest tracks, “Oklahoma Wind,” speaks to years of betrayals of Native Americans; in the song, Washington’s broken promises parallel the desolation of drought, the “double crosses mother nature made.” In “Good Christian Soldier,” co-written by Shaver and Bobby Bare and first recorded by Kristofferson at the height of the Vietnam War, the narrator sings of a young man whose faith gives way to a nonchalant nihilism amid the horrors of combat. In this telling, war is spent “tellin’ jokes and learnin’ how to die.”

Shaver’s most thought-provoking works are more philosophical than political, as expressed in the ominous title of one of his great albums, The Earth Rolls On. Shaver became a devout Christian in his forties, after years of hard partying left him on the verge of suicide. Shaver rarely invoked his faith as a mere cultural marker in the way one often hears in today’s pop-country. Rather, man’s fallen nature is a recurring theme in Shaver’s music. Our sinful proclivities sometimes manifest themselves in a lighthearted, self-deprecating, even roguish way, such as when Shaver sings, “The devil made me do it the first time / The second time I done it on my own,” in one innuendo-laden song.

For the most part, however, Shaver presents his faith more earnestly. For someone with such machismo and bravado, his lyrics frequently depict a vulnerable man who is all too aware of his failings—as a husband, a father, and a Christian. There are too many such songs to list here, but let it suffice to say they offer a bleak view of man’s ability to navigate a world of vice without looking to a higher power. “God ain’t known no greater sinner,” Shaver says of himself in one song. Yet he suggests that even the most troubled among us must strive to improve: “I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord,” he sings in another song, “but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.”

Listening to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker, one gets the impression that this self-styled “Gypsy Songman” was forever nostalgic for the days he spent busking around the country in his twenties. Walker’s songs tell stories of the sundry vagabonds and misfits who helped make the American Southwest, his adopted home, such an interesting place. His music occasionally touches on the cultural divides of his day, such as in his raucous rendition of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” In his cover of this absurd song, inspired by the time the long-haired Hubbard nearly got beaten up at a redneck bar, Walker sings in his characteristically gruff voice:

He’s 34 and drinking in a honky tonk
Just kicking hippies’ asses and raising hell

Though he reminds us that the man in question is

not responsible for what he’s doing
‘Cause his mother made him what he is

More often than not, however, one gets the impression from Walker’s music that there is more that unites the hippie and the redneck than divides them, be it in their erratic behavior, predilection for cheap booze, or, in this instance, the desire to avoid responsibility for one’s actions. A “Buckaroo” or “Scamp Walker,” as he sings in “Gettin’ By,” is someone who does just that—gets by, with minimum effort and possibly by breaking a few rules (“Income tax is overdue, I think she is too,” goes one line). This self-caricature features as the protagonist, if one can call him that, of many Walker songs, be it the comical “Pissin’ in the Wind” and “Hairy Ass Hillbillies” or the gloomier “Backsliders’ Wine” and “Well of the Blues.” (The latter is a cover of a Gary P. Nunn song that sounds as if it were recorded after Walker had “recently chugged several gallons of rotgut liquor, and woken up to regret it,” as the New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich aptly put it in her tribute.)

Before Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” became an instant classic, Walker’s music was romanticizing the old Western tradition of the ever drifting cowboy. His cover of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” tells the story of an old itinerant roughneck and his younger “sidekick” who envisions their friendship as one between two outlaws, “like some old Western movie.” In his beautiful rendition of “L.A. Freeway,” another Clark song, Walker sings of a man hastily leaving behind a life in the city of angels for some unknown destination (“Say goodbye to the landlord for me / Sons of bitches always bore me”). The narrator implies that he is either fleeing the law or someone is out to kill him, yet the song is hardly somber. Instead, one feels uplifted as Walker sings:

Adios to all this concrete
Gonna get me some dirt road back street

In the midst of a global pandemic that has severely limited the outlets for one’s wanderlust, songs like this have a particularly bittersweet taste to them. Amid the monotony of life in the time of lockdowns, the music of Walker and Shaver evoke memories of carefree gatherings with friends, cheap Texas beer, and spontaneous road trips. You needn’t be much of an outlaw yourself to find something deeply relatable in their music.

On the day that Shaver died, my parents and I listened to his 1993 album, Tramp on Your Street, after dinner. The album, whose title track is an homage to an old Hank Williams tune, is one of the best I’ve heard in any genre. Not a single song feels out of place. The tracks alternate seamlessly between up-tempo and upbeat tunes characterized by good humor and grit and the more heartfelt and introspective melodies of a man burdened by his past.

Among that latter group of songs is one of his best known, which still stirs up emotions in me even after all these years of listening. That night, it was all the more potent.

Titled “Live Forever,” the song was co-written by and performed with Shaver’s son, Eddy, a brilliant country rock guitarist who in this instance swaps his electric for an acoustic. The song is beautifully lachrymose in its own right, but all the more so in light of the fact that Eddy would die of a heroin overdose several years after the record’s release. He would never finish his own studio album as planned, which broke his father’s heart. But this song lives on, and it is a beautiful testament to Eddy’s talents as well as to a shared passion for music that brings one generation together with the next.

Around the midpoint of the song, the elder Shaver softly sings:

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ’em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light

Then father and son together:

When this old world has blown asunder
And all the stars fall from the sky
Remember someone really loves you
We’ll live forever you and I

No one lives forever. But one day I will have kids (I think), and I will play Billy Joe Shaver and Jerry Jeff Walker for them on road trips, as my parents did for me. And I like to think that maybe, if I raise my children right, they’ll play those songs for their kids, too.

James Barnett is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute and a contributing editor at American Purpose.

MusicUnited StatesCulture