Culture  /  Journal Article

The Complications of “Outlaw Country”

Johnny Cash grappled with the many facets of the outlaw archetype in his feature acting debut, Five Minutes to Live.

Kris Kristofferson was “nobody’s best friend,” according to a 1970 New York Times profile of the singer-songwriter and actor. Something of an “odd man out” in Nashville, everyone told him to move to New York or Los Angeles, where his music made more sense. But he stubbornly stuck it out, building a movement in country music with like-minded artists that was soon dubbed “outlaw country.” The label suited Kristofferson, a former Rhodes scholar who had roundly rejected his more genteel origins. He was a heavy drinker, and, by his own admission, not very nice.

In 1970, he was also crossing over into film. At first, he wrote and performed on movie soundtracks, but shortly after began acting, portraying misunderstood musicians and renegades just like him. In this way, Kristofferson was actually a conventional country star. From Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton, country musicians who go Hollywood tend to replicate the outlaw figure that appears in so many of the genre’s songs, extending this mythology to the silver screen and reinforcing their image as the odd man (or woman) out.

Country music has long been fascinated with outlaws—and not just literal ones like Billy the Kid. It also includes the more figurative kinds: petty criminals, cads, rabble-rousers, and others who exist on the margins of “polite” society. Personal biography may have played a role in some cases: Merle Haggard and David Allan Coe both served time in prison, while Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson narrowly avoided it. But vice was baked into the culture, at least by the 1940s: as the historian James C. Cobb notes in Southern Cultures, “World War II-era ‘honky tonk’ was a music born in the midst of drinking, dancing, and often brawling.”

Country artists, particularly those of the “outlaw country” movement, offered contradictory commentary on these wily types, who could be romanticized and criticized in the same song. “The outlaw, as a figure who exists outside the mainstream society either by choice or by force, is painfully aware of his outcast status and often feels unworthy of the attention he receives from women,” musicology professor Travis D. Stimeling writes in Popular Music. Stimeling continues:

The Outlaw artists were frequently depicted as wild-eyed, hulking figures living in a world in which women… were at once the saviours of these out-of-control men and the very forces that propelled them to lose control in the first place.

According to scholar Jonathan Silverman, country musicians’ fashion choices also sent mixed messages. Although Johnny Cash dressed in black “seemingly [as] a form of cool,” as his struggles with drugs and alcohol became more public, Silverman writes, Cash’s clothes took on their “more cowboy definition, that of evildoer.”