In the 1970s, country music began and ended on Nashville’s Music Row. As crossover crooners such as Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich offered up the so-called Nashville Sound—consisting of lush, orchestral arrangements—the variety of country music available to the public was sitting pretty low. Later in the decade, however, the likes of Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings gained control over the creative direction of their albums, began to choose rougher, more complicated material, and started what would soon be called the Outlaw Movement in country music. Though the stars of the Outlaw world detested being labeled, and the tag itself was originated by a record exec looking for a fresh commercial angle, the overall vibe of Outlaw-style country music has lived on, and continues to evolve rapidly. While the contemporary artists on this list may too scoff at being labeled as such, we’ve highlighted eight modern day country singers who match the Outlaw way of musicality and personality.
1. Jamey Johnson
The year after Jamey Johnson released his debut album The Dollar , his label BNA dropped him. Although his musical output has improved, his penchant for earning and releasing record labels has been a common theme throughout his 10-year musical career. The Alabama-native has since released gold and platinum-selling records (2010’s The Guitar Song, a sprawling, excellent double album unheard of in modern country circles, and 2008’s That Lonesome Song, respectively). As major labels on Music Row tend to do with non-conforming types, Johnson is now again without a major label home and he seems to be fine with that, but still this year offered up a small handful of killer tunes featuring his robust, signature baritone. It stands to reason that only an outlaw kind of artist could bounce back in such triumphant fashion repeatedly.
2-3. Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen
Rogers and Bowen are not only long-time best buds, but they are bankable stars in their own rights in the Texas country scene. For many years, the two singers have put a halt to their individually lucrative summer touring schedules to join one another on the annual Hold My Beer and Watch This Tour, where they swap acoustic songs in between jokes and stories. To capitalize on that magic, this past April, Rogers and Bowen released a studio album of duets named after their annual summer tour. The duo financed the project by themselves, and there’s not a clunker in the lot. To hammer their perspective on the country music business home, the standout track on the record, “Standards,” features a chorus with the tongue-in-cheek-but-not-really-line, “I don’t have hits, I’ve got standards.” Outlaws tell it like it is.
4. Whitey Morgan
More so than the others on this list, Flint, Mich. man Whitey Morgan is the grizzled, longhaired road warrior that would’ve likely fit in seamlessly with the Highwaymen or the more progressive artists of the 1970s who helped propel the Outlaw movement into the mainstream the most. Hard living, cocaine-shootin’, and cheating are all thematic cards on the table to be played for Morgan, and he does so with a deft touch that never veers into cliché. Given the strength of his latest album with The 78’s, Sonic Ranch—a record that manages to mine the rocking, ass-kicking country of 40 years ago while feeling urgent and fresh—Morgan seems poised to finally, after a handful of fine releases, breakthrough much in the way Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton have in recent times.
5. Dale Watson
While this pompadour-sporting, leather vest-clad motorcycle enthusiast has been recording for more than two decades, it’s only been in the past few years that larger audiences have found Dale Watson, thanks to his 2013 LP El Rancho Azul and his newest release Call Me Insane. Watson makes pure honky-tonk music even in this millennium. With lyrics that would seem insipid from many retro wannabes, Watson has lived his life on the road and on the stage, so he can help people dance and goof off for a bit with great authority. Not only has Watson officially distanced himself from country music, instead referring to his music as “ Ameripolitan,” the man has beefed up his Outlaw cred by recording a trio of albums devoted to truckin’ (not “trucking”) tunes known as The Truckin’ Sessions: Vol 1, 2, and 3.
6. Lera Lynn
If this name sounds increasingly familiar over the course of the past couple of months, then you’ve likely been watching the second season of HBO’s True Detective. The Georgia-raised, Nashville-based Lynn is the enchanting singer on-stage when Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughan are sitting in a dingy bar by themselves on multiple occasions. Her original songs featured on True Detective are indeed hypnotic, and superbly delivered in a way mainstream country radio won’t touch these days. But even before Lynn’s role on the show, she was a talent to reckon with, as evidenced on her 2014 LP The Avenues and a couple of EP releases even before that, because clearly, Outlaws can do it all.
Indeed, Crooks, started as a two-piece act in 2007 by lead-singer Josh Mazour, hail from the same musical city Dale Watson calls home, and both outfits perform a distinctive style of country music that falls well away from the formulaic Top 40 mainstream. But Crooks, now with up to six members (including an accordion player!), has excelled in an amped up style of honky-tonk music that has enough rock, Tejano, gothic, and folk flavors to avoid being easily labeled. Outlaws aren’t big on boundaries, especially sonic ones, and that is clearly evident on the group’s brand new record, Wildfire. Among the album’s 11 tracks, a sampler-course on the vast array of sounds in country music is offered in a cohesive, enjoyable way.
8. Nikki Lane
To start off, this Nashville-based artist released one of the greatest country albums of 2014, the stellar, All or Nothin’. The Dan Auerbach-produced record is packed with grit, attitude, and off-kilter humor in a take-no-prisoners kind of way. But Lane has found many other ways to boost her Outlaw resume. Her skill at offering revved up barn-burners means it’s of little shock that Lane has toured with punk icons Social Distortion this year, and recently recorded a haunting duet with southern rocker Jonathan Tyler entitled “To Love is To Fly,” a tune that plays off the title of a Townes Van Zandt—a tragic Outlaw hero in his own right— song while opening up with lyrics about cocaine, wrecking cars, and breaking hearts. Which of course, is all a part of an Outlaw’s daily routine.