Outlaw Country, Part 2: Outlaw Songs

Johnny Cash at San Quentin

That song really seems to capture what was going on in the Outlaw movement of the late 1960s through the early 1980s.  You can see the roots in Hank Williams, Sr., who focused on honky tonks and hard living.  When the elder country music community complained that the Outlaws were taking this all too far, Hank Williams, Jr., had an easy reply.

They weren't hippies, but they had some links with the longhaired movement.  I just put David Allen Coe's "Longhaired Redneck" up a couple of posts down, so we'll do Charlie Daniels this time.

The "Outlaw" thing wasn't just a nickname.  Johnny Cash played San Quentin and other prisons, and declared his friendship to all those locked down or suffering from the wrongs of society.  David Allen Coe was a patched member of the Outlaws motorcycle club during the period.  Most of the others preferred to associate with the Hells Angels.  For example, here's Johnny Paycheck singing about being an angel of the highway; and again, in tribute to Hells Angels president Sonny Barger; and Willie Nelson, singing a song he wrote to honor the Hells Angels; and Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck talking about a time when Merle bought Johnny a bunch of cocaine from the Hells Angels they had hanging around during a session.  (This was another way in which the Outlaws were similar to the rock-and-roll movement:  here's Jerry Garcia singing to and talking about the Angels, and of course, Altramont.)

Their alignment with outlaw bikers and outlaw truckers was partially rebellion, and partially righteous response to the corruption of the age.  It was also partially an old loyalty:  Red Sovine had been a bard for truckers long before Jerry Reed.  They were big on old loyalties, which to me says a great deal in their favor.  The Outlaws never broke faith with their God, nor -- in spite of the Vietnam war -- did they break faith with the American warrior.

Even so the excesses of the age were a great test.  Johnny Cash himself gave into despair and went to die in Nickajack Cave.  Instead he found in its depths a wish for life, and a soft breath of air that led him back out under the light.  His friend, and fellow outlaw, wrote this song in memory of that hard time.


Eric Blair said...

"Johnny Cash played San Quentin and other prisons, and declared his friendship to all those locked down or suffering from the wrongs of society"

You know, I'm reminded of a little skit in the British comedy series "The Young Ones" where a picture on the wall comes alive;(as a sort of flashback) and the picture is of people about to get on a ship to be transported to Austrailia--and one of them says "It is for lack of birth and circumstance that I am being transported" and the guy next to him says "AND all them murders you done."

An overwhelming proportion of those guys were in prison for good reason.

Grim said...

Yeah, that was back before the drug war really got kicked off. People in prison in the 1960s were more likely to be violent felons. And mostly they were, although the story of David Allen Coe again is telling here. He spent most of his young adult life in prison, having been abandoned by his parents at 9 to reform school, and finding the environment violent enough that he kept doing things that got his sentence extended again and again.

So, in a sense, it was for birth and circumstances; the killing (of which he admits to one, in self defense against prison rape) came after. I don't know how often that kind of story was the case, in those days.

It's my sense in any case that Johnny Cash was motivated here by two things. First, there's the Gospel movement of which he was part, which made a lot of Jesus among the thieves, and his readiness to extend his own friendship to the one who followed him. Second, of course, there was the fact of the drugs. Cash knew that he was only out of prison from a combination of luck and fame; like Willie Nelson still is today, who gets busted from time to time for small quantities of drugs that would get a less famous man sent to prison.

Cash knew that wasn't fair, and I suspect it's why he felt a duty to be sympathetic to them.