Believe it or not, country music at one point was a genre which was hard to popularize and profit from. Country was a traditional style music normally enjoyed live and varied greatly from region to region. It wasn’t until the Nashville style of country came along and created a consistent standard for the genre that it was finally able to see mass appeal.
Eventually a sub-genre called outlaw country rose up in almost direct response to the slick, mass produced patterns of the Nashville style and brought a bit of attitude to the popular country music scene. Even if the term outlaw country sounds unfamiliar, it is incredibly likely that you are already familiar with the genre without having been aware of it. The following songs are some of the most well known and culturally influential songs to have spawned from the movement. Enjoy these top outlaw country songs.
Folsom Prison Blues, Johnny Cash
A quintessential example of the outlaw style and charm is Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. Cash actually got the chance to perform this song at Folsom Prison for one of his live albums before going on to record another album at San Quentin.
Cash, also known as the man in black, is probably one of the most well known outlaw country artists. His songs have been sampled for countless movies, commercials, and trailers over the years. If you’ve ever seen any sort of cowboy movie made after the 70s then chances are good that you’ve heard at least one of his songs.
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, Willie Nelson
While for many artists the term “outlaw” country is just a label, for Willie Nelson it’s a little bit more on the nose. Nelson has infamously had more than a few run-ins with the law, mainly for marijuana possession. Despite this, Nelson is popularly thought of as more of a good natured hooligan than a serious criminal.
Nelson’s Blue Eyes is a somber ballad full of longing and love gone by. While there’s normally a touch of the sentimental in most outlaw country songs, it really takes the spotlight here.
Ladies Love Outlaws, Waylon Jennings
The song Ladies Love Outlaws is argued by many to be the origin of where the “outlaw” in outlaw country comes from. If this is the case, then that would make singer Waylon Jennings and songwriter Lee Clayton the pioneers of the genre. The song itself also sets a standard for outlaw country both in sound and subject matter. The refrain of the song, “ladies love outlaws,” can be applied not only to ladies, but the populace in general. There’s a certain appeal in outlaws that ring true with almost everyone. The song itself more or less explains why the subgenre caught on.
Mama Tried, Merle Haggard
If you want to dig even deeper into the history of outlaw country, you’ll have to go back and look at the “Bakersfield Sound.” The type of country music pioneered in Bakersfield, California could be seen as almost a predecessor to outlaw country in that it too also shrugged the conventions set by the extremely popular Nashville style of country music. Merle Haggard was a musician heavily inspired by some of the biggest names in Bakersfield style country such as Buck Owens. Haggard’s music specifically can be seen as an update of the ‘50s and 60’s Bakersfield style brought into the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Mama Tried sticks to a popular theme in outlaw country- the laments of a remorseful criminal that the audience can’t help but feel sorry for. While justice usually prevails in this sub genre, we’re still allowed to root for the criminal and enjoy some of the thrill. There’s a certain amount of catharsis involved before the status quo is returned.
The Devil Went Down to Georgia, Charlie Daniels
The Devil Went Down To Georgia is much beloved for its narrative similar to that of traditional country fables. Devil also features some of the finest fiddle performances in country that manage to incorporate elements from blues and rock. This song and story has inspired countless aspects of popular media and has even been featured contemporaneously in video games and internet memes.
Jackpot, Nikki Lane
While many are quick to assume that country music is generally a man’s genre, the history of country has been shaped just as much by female musicians. The outlaw movement is no exception, with many notable women adopting or adding to the style.
More importantly, Nikki Lane is a much more recent example of outlaw country. While the sub-genre saw the most activity during the 70’s and 80’s, artists like Nikki Lane keep it alive. Jackpot is a great example that carries the same energy and devil may care attitude as many of the old classics.
King of the Road, Roger Miller
In this song, the outlaw aspect is present conceptually more than literally. The idea and romanticism associated with outlaws is generally that of freedom, which this song celebrates and reveres. Freedom might not always be glamorous, but there’s a certain magical element to it captured very well in this song.