Back in the early 1970s, when a handful of Country singers and songwriters decided that they could bypass the stranglehold of the Nashville establishment and strike out in new, independent directions, they called themselves Outlaws. Mixing cues from the Wild West and the hippie counterculture, they grew their hair long, dressed funny, piled on the attitude and upped their indulgences. Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser and David Allen Coe were at the front of the movement. While most of their material dealt with the usual Country themes of heartache and heartbreak, the singers did occasionally put on their dusters and head into the cowboy outback, the land of Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
Actually, one of the first Outlaw albums has to be the soundtrack to the movie Ned Kelly (1970), which featured Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings singing about the most famous bad man in 19th-century Australia.
This bulky CD/DVD box set covers all the bases. It has three CDs of classic Outlaw Country music, and the set even manages to include peripheral figures like Roger Miller and Jerry Lee Lewis, who usually get left behind. The fourth disc is a DVD of a two-hour concert held at Austin’s Paramount Theater last February that was originally broadcast on PBS. What made the concert especially good was that the show was all about bridging the gap between Western outlaws and Outlaw music, and that the participants were a mix of older and newer first-rate performers. Texas singer Joe Ely sings “Me and Billy the Kid,” Raul Malo and his heaven-sent voice manage to steal “El Paso” from the ghost of Marty Robbins and there are two all-star versions of Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man,” which bookend the show. Artists featured include Cowboy Troy, Buddy Jewell, Lee Roy Parnell, Suzy Boggus and Jessi Colter. A bonus disc contains most of the material from the concert, but with brighter and cleaner audio.
Finally, the set includes an hour-long documentary, The Outlaw Trail, that examines the real West and looks at the socio-economic conditions that helped create outlaws. Turns out it’s a combination of oppression, opportunity, wide open spaces and good clean fun. Although it’s a fairly breezy work, it does a good job of defining the times, the places and the people who made their living rustling and robbing. Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch take center stage for the better part of the second half of the film, and Cassidy’s charm and intelligence add a lot of warmth to the show, as do the many period photos and visits to legendary hideout spots like Robbers Roost, the Hole-in-the-Wall and Browns Park.
The set comes encased in a metal box that features Butch and his pals on the back. The Outlaw Trail would make a nice gift for Country fans of a certain generation who loved Westerns and weren’t afraid to let their babies grow up to be cowboys.