I’m a big fan of a country music sub-genre called “outlaw country.” Its artists are some of the most widely recognizable names in music: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels. You probably know these names and can recall some of their songs even if you don’t like country.
Outlaw is, in many ways, an ode to the pervasiveness of rural and small town poverty, and the fraught relationship it stirs up between poor people and authority (especially the law) as the former try to get by under difficult circumstances.
- Willie Nelson’s highwayman was hung in the Spring of ’45 for killing soldiers and stealing women’s “baubles.”
- The narrator of Folsom Prison Blues shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
- Charlie Daniels’ Long Haired Country Boy lies in the shade high and drunk, bemoaning the self-righteousness of a Christian preacher
- Sturgill Simpson’s Long White Line tells of a fellow leaving the stifling confines of a small town explicitly for New York City or Albuquerque
Outlaw country — and rural culture in general — celebrates its adversarial relationship with authority, conformity, and Rockwellian respectability just as much as hip hop does. The Dukes of Hazzard, an American cultural icon, was a celebration of moonshiners thumbing their nose at both the law and the locals who enforced it. This was made clear from jump in the theme song:
Just a good old boys
Never meanin’ no harm
Beats all you never saw
Been in trouble with the law since the day they was born
Straightening the curves, yeah
Flattenin’ the hills
Someday the mountain might get ’em, but the law never will
Makin’ their way the only way they know how
That’s just a little bit more than the law will allow
Outlaw country resonates with me because I’m the resident of the genuinely small town (population < 350) which is the seat of our county (population < 19,000).
I’ve been connected to this place since I was ten years old. My parents bought my uncle’s house here to settle his affairs shortly before he passed away; he’d been a local school administrator. I’d spend the week at our home in southeast Washington, D.C…