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“Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s” Reviewed

Outlaw country music is a four decade plus marketing strategy that may ultimately have a longer shelf life than “rock ‘n’ roll” as a relevant corporate and cultural phenomenon. Despite often succumbing to shtick, gimmicks, and retro fashion garb, the sub-genre turned genre shows no sense of slowing down. In addition to its popularity on satellite radio, there is an annual outlaw themed cruise that’s an automatic sellout every January, and now the Country Music Hall of Fame is cashing in with a major exhibit, a related concert, and, I’m guessing, what will eventually be a series of compilation albums.

The first double album/CD/streaming set, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s. is comprised of thirty-six tunes from the 1970s, an interesting collection of obvious choices, deep cuts, and a few bad decisions. As someone who has lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for the better part of the past decade, I don’t want to get too Lone Star Beer swilling proud, but about 90% of the selections are from Texas singers or songwriters. So, this is fundamentally a collection of the 1970’s Texas alt country, mainstream country, and singer-songwriter experience (with the notable exceptions being Steven Fromholz and Walter Hyatt). The Texas connection makes sense in that Austin (“The Live Music Capital of the World,” lest you forget) emerged as the primary alternative to Nashville during the 1970s. The Armadillo World Headquarters became the place where hippies and cowboys discovered that pot and two stepping weren’t mutually exclusive. On the business side of the equation, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings planted their flags for artistic control, no longer letting the Nashville suits decide what songs they would perform, what musicians they would use, and how radio friendly the production values would be.

This set makes the argument for the enduring legacy of the genre by reflecting a big tent perspective on inclusion. Fundamentally, the Bob Wills revivalism of Asleep at the Wheel sounds nothing like the confessional blues of Townes Van Zandt or the Dylan inspired imagery of Kris Kristofferson or Chris Gantry. The fact that both Emmylou Harris and Johnny Paycheck fit into this new traditionalism shows exactly how stiff collared Nashville had become during this era. When non-conformity/rebellion becomes this easy, the revolution has to be televised.

OK, as for the music – there are a number of shooting fish in the barrel selections from Waylon, Willie, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver. However, being obvious in this case is both a necessity and a strong suit. On the negative side, the two successive Shel Silverstein compositions are a bit dicey, Tom T. Hall doesn’t belong here, and Johnny Cash covering the Rolling Stones sounds like a great idea, but it’s an automatic pilot performance. Still, this set does exactly what a primer should do – introduce subjects for further discovery. You may or may not know that Steve Young wrote “Seven Bridges Road” but he competes with Townes in the desperation sweepstakes on “No Place to Fall” and it makes me want to hear more of his work. John Hartford got royalty checks with “Gentle on My Mind,” but the hippie escapism of “Back in the Goodle Days” is a retro before retro was cool number that shows artistic exploration, not bandwagon jumping. Nobody works bemused irony better than Lubbock iconoclast Terry Allen and my life will be richer when I dig deeper into his catalogue.

If this is a continuing project, I can easily see future compilations dipping too heavily into obscurities and idiosyncratic choices. However, this set hits the mark for the abiding attributes of lovable losers and no account boozers.

Grade: A

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