Country music is amongst the most maligned of musical genres (perhaps just below Nu-metal). Many of the artists that dominate mainstream country music radio stations play a brand of country music that does not feel sincere. It is as if a record label told them to combine a collection of stereotypes about hard-working Americans and set it to the strumming of an acoustic guitar. It is apparent that they are not singing about lived experiences. They are pandering to a demographic, and hoping that listeners will not think hard enough about it to notice.
As with most musical genres, record labels have traditionally held a significant amount of sway over the sort of music they allow their artists to release. The Outlaw Country movement arose out of country artists’ frustration with their record labels stymying their creativity and forcing them into making formulaic music. Artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson began to push back against their record labels. Jennings was close to leaving music altogether in the early 1970s due to his exasperation with the Nashville establishment. Fortunately, he was able to wrestle creative control from his record label, and released the iconic album Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, which became an iconic piece of the Outlaw Country movement.
On Honky Tonk Heroes, Jennings strived to replicate the sound of his live performances, injecting some elements of rock and roll. All but one of the songs were written by Billy Joe Shaver, who was a relatively unknown songwriter at the time. Despite Jennings not writing the songs, he had a knack for making them his own. He embodied all of the songs he sang, adding a loveable roughness to them. This is on full display in the song “Black Rose,” where Jennings sings about a pitiable man being unable to prevent himself from falling for the charms of a woman. It is hard not to smile at the line:
“Well, the devil made me do it the first time The second time I done it on my own.”
I grew up disliking country music, but I now know that I was just listening to the wrong country music. If you have your own doubts about country music, I suggest that you give Waylon Jennings a little of your time.