Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and the Outlaw Country Revival
I recently read an article online in something called Brooklyn Magazine, which I don't think is actually a magazine in the sense that there is no printed version. The article is called Margo Price and the Country Music Purist Problem. I'm going to be honest, I'm a little unclear on the thesis of that article, something about how the idea that Sturgill Simpson or Margo Price somehow represent "Outlaw Country" is either misguided or false. Or maybe that's not the point at all. Author Elias Light says, of the relationship between Outlaw and Mainstream country music,
"This interdependence existed in the halcyon past as well: the original Outlaws formed in opposition to the prevailing Countrypolitan sound in Nashville, a schmaltzy, string-heavy style perfected by producer Billy Sherrill with acts like George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Before he found something to resist, Willie Nelson was a good songwriter with no direction: 1969’s My Own Peculiar Way is remarkable mainly for its lack of peculiarity; there are Christmas records with more guts. And Waylon Jennings took a long time to become a honky tonk hero. In the long run, of course, country found room for both the syrupy mainstream singers and the rugged outsiders. Both are now part of the canon: the Outlaws got the cool name and rebel mystique; George Jones, treacly, over-produced ballads and all, is one of the greatest singers vocalists in popular music, regardless of genre."
The major omission of Light's analysis of the relationship between Outlaw and Mainstream Country is his failure to take into account the importance of place in the creation of Outlaw Country. The Brooklyn Magazine article argues that there is "no real difference" or that the difference is exagerated, but this is fundamentally a view of someone who doesn't know the difference between Nashville, Austin and Bakersfield. In other words, it's the view of someone who writes for Brooklyn Magazine.
Outlaw Country existed not as any aesthetic difference between music played by different country and western artists but as places outside of Nashville, mostly Austin and Bakersfield, and the constellation of institutions that were developed by artists in those places. Let's take Bakersfield. I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in May of 2014, and they had an exhibit on Bakersfield and it's role in the genesis of Outlaw Country. As I said then:
After ending with an exhibit heavy on the roll of television and radio in the rise of Nashville, the second floor is anchored by an excellent exhibit on The Bakersfield Sound, a Country scene that is most typically identified as being part of the "Outlaw Country" movement. The main players are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and one of the revelations of the exhibit is that one woman, Bonnie Owens, married them both in succession. I wasn't surprised to learn that many of the exhibits were supplied by Buck Owens' own Crystal Palace, a combination steak house/museum that is devoted to Buck Owens (who is the creator of the Bakersfield sound.)
After ending with an exhibit heavy on the roll of television and radio in the rise of Nashville, the second floor is anchored by an excellent exhibit on The Bakersfield Sound, a Country scene that is most typically identified as being part of the "Outlaw Country" movement. The main players are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and one of the revelations of the exhibit is that one woman, Bonnie Owens, married them both in succession. I wasn't surprised to learn that many of the exhibits were supplied by Buck Owens' own Crystal Palace, a combination steak house/museum that is devoted to Buck Owens (who is the creator of the Bakersfield sound.)- Museum Review: Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, Tenn
This legacy is still present in the city of Bakersfield. In 2011, I went to Bakersfield and ate at the Buck Owens Crystal Palace, which is also a museum that documents the important role Bakersfield played in the development of Outlaw Country:
Dinner was an easy choice: Buck Owens Crystal Palace, a combination Steak house/Hard Rock style museum and music venue started by the legendary country hit-maker in 1995. Buck also owns a country radio station in town, which is located next door to the Crystal Palace. Our dinner at the Crystal Palace was what we expected: A great delight for every sense EXCEPT taste. I'm not complaining, but my advice if you go there is to have a snack at the Brimstone prior, order the smallest thing off the menu at Crystal Palace and "pre-drink": My Budweiser was something like 5.50, and while I'm happy to pay up, I wouldn't want to do extended drinking here. The Museum aspect is incredible, with an actual emphasis on his individual hits with the various costumery he used to promote each hit filling the rest of the display cases. Still, if you have one night in Bakersfield and miss this place, you a sucka. Call ahead for a reservation and get there after 7:30 PM for the band.
- 12 Hours in Bakersfield
The same can be said about Willie Nelson and Austin. Of course, Outlaw Country interacted with Nashville and the Countrypolitan sound, but it was physically located outside of Nashville. So what Elias Leight gets wrong in the Brooklyn Magazine article is a failure to take account on the importance of place. Treating any artistic development simply in aesthetic terms without taking into account the institutions which combine to produce the development is a common critical mistake made by people who don't get out of the city much. It's an avant garde version of the "ivory tower syndrome" where academics fail to take into account real world dynamics in their description of problems.
What is interesting about an artist like Margo Price is that she comes from within Nashville, but the production of her breakthrough LP, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, places itself outside Nashville in terms of the theme (MIDWEST Farmer's Daughter) and the actual production of the record, which took place entirely outside the Nashville cultural-industrial complex. Margo Price and her husband paid for the record itself, did not use outside writers, recorded it in three days, did not have the assistance of a label or publishing company. That is Outlaw Country right there, on it's face. Whether the music is best described as traditional or something else is entirely besides the point.
In conclusion, Elias Leight is wrong, in that there is no "problem" to be identified with the music of Margo Price or Sturgill Simpson. Country music purism is meaningless in the way that he uses the phrase in his article. Margo Price can be squarely located in the Outlaw Country tradition, even though she came from Nashville, because of the means of production of her record outside the Nashville cultural industrial complex.
Her success points to the diversification of Nashville to the point where it can support both the mainstream Nashville complex AND simultaneously support an Outlaw Country scene within it's own borders, call it East Nashville. This East Nashville Outlaw Country scene also functions as a self-supporting "indie rock" scene of the sort which exists in almost every top 50 US market.