OUTLAW

KINGMAN IS not a particularly Outlaw Country sort of town.

 

The Arizona settlement – founded 1882 – lies on the crossroads of Interstate 40 and Highway 93 on the way from Flagstaff towards the Mojave Desert. Or, if heading northwest to lose some money at the tables, two thirds of the way from Phoenix to Las Vegas 

 

The town of around 30,000 is the seat of Mojave County and counts professional athletes, actors both TV and Hollywood, and a 1970s-vintage Playboy centerfold among its sons and daughters. It was named after 19th century civil engineer and railway surveyor Lewis Kingman and sits within a semi-arid desert plateau roughly 1000 metres above sea level between the Hualapai and Cerbat mountains.

 

If the name is familiar but you're not sure why, blame Bobby Troup and his 1947 song (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66. Kingman is name-checked between Winona and Barstow as the much-covered lyric journeys from Chicago to Los Angeles along the legendary but now officially delisted 'Mother Road'.

 

Not that anybody in Kingman is letting the claim to fame go that easily: the unofficial 'Heart of Historic Route 66' hosts an annual Route 66 fun run in spring, the Route 66 street drag races in October, a regular Route 66 swap meet on Saturdays and Sundays, a Route 66 water tower and a number of Route 66 branded eateries.

 

The town also, and here is where we are starting to get back to the music, in case you were wondering, boasts the Arizona Route 66 Museum.

 

Now it must be acknowledged that there are at least 10 other similarly-focused collections strung out along what used to be Route 66 – of which three are in Oklahoma, three are in Illinois and two are in California – but, for my money, and not having been in any of the others, the Kingman edition is the best.

 

This is partly because it is contained within a restored powerhouse, an impressive bit of early 20th century public utility architecture built starting in 1907 by Los Angeles outfit Tracy Engineering Company for the local Desert Power & Water Company. Buttressed concrete walls 18 inches thick support an iron truss roof some 20 feet off the ground, creating something of a cathedral vibe that is in turn reinforced by a series of vaulted windows.

 

The interior of the $300,000 project originally featured twin oil-fired, steam-driven generators to provide electricity to Kingman and area mining operations but, by the late 1930s, this was rendered redundant by power supplied by the nearby and upstart Hoover Dam. A period of idle decline followed before local activists took control of the powerhouse and spearheaded a total renovation that, by 2001, included the Route 66 museum.

 

Exhibits follow the history of the famous thoroughfare from its beginnings as a wagon trail through the Dust Bowl exodus and into the modern day. There are mannequins. Some with really bad fake beards. But don't let that deter; if you find yourself passing through Kingman there are far worse ways to spend a couple of hours and a few dollars.

 

And while you are there, at no extra expense, do not bypass the 2014 addition to the complex: the Route 66 Electric Vehicle Museum, run by the Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation, with 3600 square feet of battery-powered automotive magic on display. Including golf carts. Two of which, standing side by side behind a plastic 'do not touch' chain, once belonged to Outlaw Country pioneers Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

 

Both are red, although that is probably a coincidence.

 

The cart connected with the legend that is Waylon Jennings is designed to look like a Mercedes-Benz 450 SL: it features the iconic nose and back end of the classic roadster on either side of a traditional golfer's cab and seat, albeit with a pretty bad-ass smoked glass windshield. Branding includes the famous front-end combo of grille, headlights and logo (albeit wrong-way up) and, at the tail, the famous M-B chrome numbers in what looks like the authentic typeface.

 

According to HEVF executive director Roderick Wilde, the limited production electric cart is based on a Melex model 252; its general shape will be familiar to anyone who has ever been to a golf course, driven around Scottsdale, Arizona, or seen Caddyshack.

 

The display in Kingman has at some points featured a photo showing Waylon standing next to the cart with a golf club in hand, along with three others. Details of the photo and so the connection between Jennings and the cart were not readily available: the HEVF has so far shared few other pertinents about purchase or provenance, but has promised to come back to me at some point.

 

It may turn out to have been less golf and more cart, ie a vehicle that provided a simple option for getting around a large property, rather than a way to tote clubs from hole to hole. That would fit nicely with information already in the public domain.

 

DJ and songwriter Gerry House wrote in his book Country Music Broke My Brain that Jennings only ever played golf on one occasion. The star reluctantly swapped his usual black shirt and leather vest for a red and white striped polo, according to House's telling, before hacking his way through nine holes and a number of four-letter words, none of which were g-o-l-f.

 

'It ain't for me,' Waylon told House.

                                        

Willie Nelson, by contrast, is a famously avid duffer who in 1979 bought his own course in Spicewood, Texas, for a reported $250,000. The nine-hole Pedernales Country Club was seized by the IRS in lieu of unpaid taxes in 1991 and sold to a third party, before being eventually re-acquired by Nelson.

 

It is easy to imagine the golf cart that is now resident in the Route 66 museum in Kingman, a gift from Nelson's then-wife Connie in 1981, rolling down the fairways with the famous braids dancing in the slipstream from beneath a bandana, or maybe a white Titleist golf hat. 

 

It is not your everyday club carrier: cherry-bright with full windshield and a snazzy white canopy, a Rolls-Royce nose and front grille, an onboard push-button minibar, sound system, headlights and turn signals. The seats are red velvet embroidered with 'Willie' in elegant if slightly cheesy script, the tires are whitewalled, there is a winged chrome hood ornament. It is known as The 19th Hole.

 

Unfortunately for Willie, the cart was also seized by the taxman in 1991 and, unlike the Pedernales course, never returned to his ownership. The HEVF secured the item for its collection at an auction in Florida some years later.

 

All of which is a roundabout way of establishing not only an admittedly moonshot attempt to write off the expenses of a long-ago trip to the US southwest against tax but – more importantly – the foundations of the central premise of this segment: Outlaw Country is an essential part of the evolution of modern roots music, but not for the reason that many people might think.

 

Yes the genre encouraged black clothing, unkempt facial hair, hard drinking and drug misuse, yes there are occasional connections to prison culture, truck-driving and the disenfranchised, yes there can be swearing, questionable sexual stereotypes and the celebration of minor criminality.

 

But all of that is window dressing. Because what distinguishes Outlaw Country, what truly separates it from the rest of what was happening in Nashville in the 1970s, was the issue of independence, the ability to make your own choices. Freedom.

 

Even if just to play nine holes with a minibar on board. Or drive around in a cart pimped out as a Merc. 

 

Should either of those be your thing.

 

OUTLAW IS most often defined by what it was not: the orchestrated, controlled and highly-polished production of 1970s mainstream Nashville. The genre instead found its roots, often outwith Music City, among the 1960s counterculture, the metaphorical fireworks of early-years Southern rock, and a honkytonk ethos.

 

Waylon Jennings is almost universally acknowledged as the main driver for what would become Outlaw: his early rockabilly career, a pared-down electric country sound and an air of rebellion combining in a template that many others would follow. 

 

The well-travelled Jennings famously fought major label RCA to win creative control over his output and in 1972 and 1973 released a quartet of long-plays that are widely credited as the genesis of Outlaw: Good Hearted Woman, Ladies Love Outlaws, Lonesome, On'ry and Mean, and Honky Tonk Heroes.

 

Fellow traveller Willie Nelson was, it hardly needs said, equally as important. To recount: he left a successful career in Nashville in 1970 and returned to his native Texas in order to bring his own brand of music, which was quickly included in the Outlaw bracket, to a new and younger audience. Nelson's landmark contribution to the genre – not coincidentally, and with echoes of Jennings the direct product of full creative control, this time for Columbia – was Red Headed Stranger (1975).

 

The combination of the new sound created by Jennings and the new audience cultivated by Nelson propelled Outlaw into the mainstream. A stable of artists – male and female, and to varying degrees of success – were inspired by the musical independence and would follow the trail blazed to explore new horizons.

 

Many others would be entranced more by the image and attitude, which as the 1970s wore on was increasingly cultivated as a marketable commodity, and therefore regimented, by the Nashville machine. 

 

Which meant that Outlaw Country, as a movement, started to outlive its usefulness in short order. To return briefly to James Hand, who we met in the last chapter – and with due acknowledgement to comments reported by Saving Country Music based on an 2006 interview with NPR – there was a disconnect at the heart of the genre. 

 

'The louder that people say they had a drug problem, or they went to prison, or that they're an Outlaw, the less they probably did it, and the less that anybody with any kind of class wants to hear it,' said Hand.

 

'If somebody asks me about it, I'll be forthright and honest about it, yes. But if somebody doesn't ask me about it, I don't call a publicist and say: "Play this up." Yeah play this up because I went to prison and broke everybody's heart.'

 

The positives of the genre – constructive rebellion, individuality of character and freedom to choose one's path – became increasingly intertwined with a brand of misdemeanour showboating that at its worst flirted with reactionary identity politics and a host of unattractive -isms.

 

Alienation for elements of the audience created by the original Outlaws was inevitable. Which does not mean that the component tribes of hippies, cowboys, renegades, students and thinkers disbanded; they simply evolved.

 

Partly that was a genre thing. 

 

Scrape beneath the surface of modern bluegrass, stringband, Americana, alt-folk, alt-country and roots and you will find the influences of Outlaw: the premium placed on musical honesty, integrity and performance; the value of creation over cash; the primacy of human relationships rather than business deals.

 

And enabliing and encouraging that post-Outlaw diversity, at least in the longer term, was technology.

 

Connectivity and digitalization, starting with the stepping stone of Myspace in the early 2000s, established accessible alternatives to the traditional music business. The ignored, struggling, unfashionable or uneconomic elements of country and roots suddenly had production, distribution and marketing at their fingertips; full creative control and a direct portal to audiences.

 

There were negatives of course, from rampant file sharing and broken copyrights to miserly streaming royalties and occasionally rotten amateurism. But from a glass half-full perspective, modern Americana and independent country – in all of their diversity and individuality – exist only because success, measured as the ability to earn at least a partial living from music, was no longer contingent on the traditional powers that be.

 

Which is not to ignore the contributions through the 1980s and 1990s of the post-Outlaw, pre-internet pioneers of neotraditionalism and alt-country, among others, but rather to acknowledge the sheer scale and massive scope of what has developed since. 

 

Which brings us back to the golf carts. Sort of.

 

It is probably a stretch – actually scratch that, it is definitely a stretch – but to this correspondent there is something magical hidden within the moulded fibreglass, something wondrous about serious, heavy-hitting recording artists meandering around the back nine or lower 40 at a battery-powered 20mph.

 

There is a distinction of outlook and approach that is particularly stark when contrasted with the more typical Cadillacs and muscle cars of 1950s and 1960s mainstream country: here are artists defying stereotypes, challenging preconceptions, asserting independence. Championing a different way of doing things.

                                    

Which I hope is what Outlaw was about all along. At least when at its best.

 

And if part of it was the black hats, leathers, dirty jeans, bourbon bottles, sneers and cheroots, well in that case it is hard to judge too harshly... I mean, who doesn't want to be that guy? At least some of the time . . . 

 

 

THIS SEEMS as good a place as any for a very quick detour to consider 'honkytonk', or honky-tonk, or honky tonk, a word that over the last 50 years has often been associated with the Outlaw movement – although by no means exclusively. The lyrics across all varieties of country, roots and Americana are littered with the expression whether as noun, adjective, concept or outlook.

It is a not a particularly long-toothed term; the earliest references appear from the 1870s in descriptions of establishments specialising in entertainments including drinking, gambling, dancing and a wide range of sometimes bawdy variety performances ('free and easy', in some references). Usage became widespread through the 1900s before tailing off somewhat in recent decades.

 

The origin is obscure. Some sources – and this correspondent hopes this is true – maintain that it is an onomatopoeic term mimicking the sound of a tinny, upright piano as played in the corner of a crowded barroom. Others believe that the term derives from instruments supplied by keyboard company William Tonk & Bros, although the dates for that otherwise appealing argument don't quite add up.

 

What is certain is that honkytonk came to describe a premises in which beer and whiskey were consumed, music was played and good times were had. 

 

Originally found across the south and southwest, they were often in out of town locations where volume and general rambunctiousness was less likely to annoy neighbours and/or justify regular visits by the police. They popped up just outside dry counties, on cattle trails, around oil reserves and on rural highways through agricultural heartlands. The honkytonk establishment, as time went on, followed a customer base that migrated north and west and into the industrial urban landscape.

 

Reference and attachment to the musical category, the lifestyle and the attitude followed thereafter. And, although it was and is part of the mainstream Nashville lexicon and imagery, when properly applied can still differentiate between those who are part of the establishment and those who are seeking separation from the constraints of polite conformity.

 

Just beyond the Squaretown city limits, to really stretch the metaphor. 

 

Which is where we'll stay, at least through the next chapter...and probably beyond.

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All text © 2021 by Todd Westbrook. May not be reproduced without express written permission of the author.