In country music today, outlaws are in.
Witness the ascent of Chris Stapleton, who will headline Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater on July 21. Last year, the long-haired, bearded Nashville outsider took both the album and song of the year prizes at the Academy of Country Music Awards for his debut solo album, “Traveller.” This year, his “From a Room: Vol. 1,” enjoyed the largest opening sales week for a country album in a year and a half, a feat last achieved by the mainstream Nashville star Luke Bryan.
Earlier this year, another rebel soul, Sturgill Simpson, landed the Grammy for best country album and was nominated for that show’s peak prize, album of the year, right next to stars like Adele and Beyoncé. In early July, Nashville outlier Jason Isbell debuted in the top spot on Billboard’s country album chart with his latest set, ironically titled “The Nashville Sound.”
Small wonder many observers think “outlaw country” is having a moment — again. “Finally we’re able to see these kinds of artists achieving what they always should have achieved,” said Brigitte London, editor of Outlaw Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the subgenre.
“Country music is getting new energy from these artists,” said musician Lenny Kaye, who ghost-wrote the autobiography of one of the original outlaw stars, Waylon Jennings, and who plays in Patti Smith’s band. “They’ve giving a new voice to this generation.”
Joining them are Jamey Johnson (who has wracked up gold and platinum albums in the last few years), Whitey Morgan, Luke Combs, Nikki Lane, Margo Price and others.
Such stars recall the spirit and attitude of outlaw’s original wave from the ’70s, which included Jennings, Willie Nelson, David Allen Coe, Kris Kristopherson and Jessi Colter.
So, what ties these vintage stars to their modern counterparts?
“They’re rejecting the clean-shaven, pretty boy, cowboy-hat-wearing people that preceded them,” said country music historian Robert K. Oermann. “Both physically, and musically, they’re offering something that’s much more honest.”
At the same time, Oermann points out that the original outlaws far more accurately embodied the word. “They were drug-taking crazies who were outside the law in their lifestyle as well as their musical choices,” he said. By contrast, “you won’t find anyone sweeter than Chris Stapleton.”
For that reason, Oermann prefers to call this latest wave “rebels” rather than “outlaws,” while Kaye favors the term “renegades.” “The new outlaws are more respectful,” London said. “They’ve discovered that you can’t drink and drug yourself to death.”
Moreover, today’s rebels tend to be on indie labels, while the pioneers had major label contracts, allowing them to rage against the Nashville machine from the inside. Nelson was a well-established star when he proposed radically shifting his style on “Red Headed Stranger,” a 1975 work which greatly advanced the outlaw ethos. Nelson’s label, Columbia, strongly discouraged the new direction. Nelson’s defiance paid off when “Stranger” went No. 1. The sound he created stripped away the lush productions of Music Row, drawing instead on the raucousness of then ascendant Southern rock. “Stars like Willie and Waylon wanted the same energy, presentation and, honestly, the same financial rewards, as rock and roll was offering,” Kaye said.
The shift proved so popular that a 1976 album titled “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring Nelson, Jennings, Colter and Tompall Glaser, became the first country album to be certified platinum.
The current rebel wave built its momentum slowly over the past decade, much in the way that college rock of the ’80s exploded into the grunge revolution in the ’90s. Oermann says country radio missed the boat on its rise. “It shows how out of touch country radio has become with the music people actually want to buy, as opposed to what they will passively listen to,” he said.
At first, country radio wrote Stapleton off. Even today, such stations rarely play Simpson. Oermann credits the spread of the movement to “a new era of music delivery and consumption. People are finding out about new music not through radio but on NPR, social media, or in the press.”
The widened exposure has created more opportunities for women, who have been shut out of country radio for years, unless they’re Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood. The surge in outlaws has also encouraged older artists to come back to the fold. Steve Earle, who brought the rebel spirit in the ’80s and ’90s, has revived it for his new album under the winking title “So You Wannabe An Outlaw.”
Ironically, these latest outlaws are, in a sense, revivalists, reasserting country’s roots at a point where its mainstream has strayed so far, it often sounds like ’80s corporate rock, with big drums and squealing guitars. “The best artists are returning the music to its heart and soul,” Kaye said. “They’re reminding us of why people sing songs in the first place.”
WHO Chris Stapleton
WHEN | WHERE July 21 at 7 p.m., Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater
INFO $30.75-$199, livenation.com
FIVE CLASSIC OUTLAW COUNTRY ALBUMS
Willie Nelson, “Red Headed Stranger”
Though it’s hardly the first outlaw album, “Stranger” certified the style’s commercial worth in 1975, and sustained its character with a consistent theme. A concept album about a fugitive on the run after killing his wife and her lover, “Stranger” contains some of Nelson’s most iconic recordings, including the title track and his aching cover of “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
Guy Clark, “Old No. 1”
A spare masterpiece, Clark’s 1975 debut matched the weary beauty of his vocals to the fine detail of his lyrics and the lonesome melodies in classics like “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperadoes Waiting for the Train.”
David Allen Coe, “Longhaired Redneck”
No outlaw writes with more wit, and specificity, than Coe. His 1976 classic ripples with blunt lyrics and in-your-face vocals.
Kris Kristofferson, “Kristofferson”
Kristofferson was already a successful songwriter when he released his debut recording in 1970. But his grizzled voice, and sexy persona, brought new life to classics he wrote, like “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” The fine lyrics in such songs made him the genre’s poet laureate.
Waylon Jennings, “Honky Tonk Heroes”
One ornery outlaw saluted another on this stellar 1973 set. Nine of its 10 songs were written by Billy Joe Shaver, who had issued his own genre classic, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” that same year. Pairing Jennings’ vocals, by turns barreling and wounded, with Shaver’s blustery and knowing writing, gave the style a bracing template.
— JIM FARBER