Song Review: Shooter Jennings- “Outlaw You”
Right now, in August 2011, country music is in worse shape than it’s been since the infamous Nashville sound era of the 1960s. Granted, it took us a while to get to this point. First came the urban cowboys, then the pop revolution led by Garth, Shania and eventually Taylor Swift, and now with artists such as Justin Moore, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton we have a new manufactured “authenticity”- songs so cliched that they make rap songs about handguns and hoes sound original. We’re talking tenth-generation bootleg copies of “A Country Boy Can Survive” with a pop backing and none of the heart and soul.
The legendary Chet Flippo has written about it over at CMT.com. Peter Cooper at the Tennessean has written about it. The Triggerman has been writing about it for years on Saving Country Music. I’ve even mentioned it myself a couple of times. But in the end there’s only so much we can do. We can talk about what needs to happen, how things used to be or whatever else, but to really get anywhere there has to be that one record that will offer a viable alternative. And it’s not going to be Those Poor Bastards or the Goddamn Gallows, at least not at first. Before that, there has to be one song that barely fits in on Nashville radio, the artist that plays their game just long enough to change the rules, the guy who’s going to rise up and bring all his rowdy friends onto the airwaves with him.
Well, it’s here. Today on iTunes, Shooter Jennings released a new song “Outlaw You” and numerous insiders have told him that it will be huge. Today it’s on the front page of CMT.com and CMT is also promoting it heavily through their Facebook page. A music video was shot yesterday in Nashville because they wanted it on the air as soon as possible. This song is going to blow up big and in doing so it will blow up in Music Row’s face. They will get behind anything that sounds slick and polished regardless of what the artist stands for and that will come back to haunt them. The song’s video is set to feature several of the artists Shooter and I have been promoting through givememyxxx.com and he has said that he will do all that he can to turn any attention he receives for this song back onto them. Remember when the Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere and before long you had the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Cream, the Who, and all of these great British bands that followed? After the heyday of rockabilly and hardcore R&B in the ’50s, the American music industry had turned it’s attention back to teen idol pop bullshit and the British came over to rescue us. Now it’s country’s turn to be rescued and the help is coming from the underground.
But on to the song itself, it’s a really catchy tune with a great message sung straight from the heart. He begins by chastising country radio and criticizing the faux outlaws for namedropping Hank Williams and his godfather, the late Johnny Cash. In the chorus he calls out the “pretty boys in the baseball hat” and explains that country isn’t about adhering to a Music Row formula, but adhering to what’s inside. Then in the second verse, he makes it even more clear why these artists have no right whatsoever to refer to themselves as outlaws by highlighting his own father’s struggles within the Nashville system and telling of his rise to the top. In a way this is a continuation of “Put the O Back in Country” and “Solid Country Gold,” two songs from his solo debut album, but here it’s even more personal and you can tell that, as a survivor of one of Nashville’s biggest labels, he’s speaking from experience. In a way, this is about defending the legacy of his father and guys like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson who made it on their terms and did it their way, but on some level it’s also about honoring the artists of today who work outside of the system and make the music their way. Or to put it another way, as long as there are guys like Jimbo Mathus or Joey Allcorn around, I’ll be damned if I’ll let anybody call Eric Church an outlaw.
Of course, this kind of song is nothing new. Off the top of my head, I can name a dozen acts with a song preaching against the sins of modern Nashville. But I think that the Triggerman said it best in his review of the song, saying “This isn’t just another anti-Nashville protest song. This is Charlie Rich burning the envelope with John Denver’s name in it on the 1975 CMA awards. This is a Alan Jackson launching into George Jones’ ‘Choices’ at the 1999 CMA awards. This is Merle Haggard telling CBS Records executive Rick Blackburn ‘Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash.’ It rises to the level of these historic moments in country music history because it not only contains bravado, it also contains class and truth.”
In summation, I don’t think it’s Shooter’s best song or, in light of Black Ribbons, even his most important, but I do think that it may be the song that he ends up being remembered for. When he sent it to me a few weeks ago, just after he’d recorded it I told him that the only complaint I had was that the drums were too far up in the mix. But in their pursuit of rural ’80s hair metal, Nashville won’t have that complaint and the fact that this message is being heard, not just by those of us who already know that great music still exists, but by those who think that Jason Aldean is country, outweighs any minor complaints you or I may have. Plus this song does have more fiddle than any mainstream country song in over a decade and that’s always a good thing.