We all know about the Outlaw Country movement, that stylistic and attitude splintering of Waylon, Willie and the others that took their sound out of Nashville and into Texas where some of the most vibrant, and most enduring, country music was created. That’s not what this is.
I wanted to do a list of songs actually about outlaws. The blood shedding type. Whether as a concept or a literal fugitive it seemed like a rich and natural source for inspiration. Include your own in the comments if you would like.
6. Joe Ely’s Me and Billy the Kid – What does Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Joe Ely have in common? A song about Bill the Kid. I went with what I think was the best.
5. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska. A song inspired by the 19 year-old Charles Starkweather who, along with his 14 year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate, went on a murder spree killing 11 people in Nebraska in 1958. Springsteen even considered “Starkweather” as the title.
4. Terry Allen – New Delhi Freight Train – Terry Allen’s song begins “Some people think that I must be crazy / But my real name is just Jesse James”, and goea on to be narrated by the outlaw. Originally recorded on Allen’s 1979 album Lubbock (On Everything), the song has been covered by Rick Nelson, and by Little Feat.
3. Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger – In true Outlaw Country fashion Willie Nelson wrote a concept album in 1975 about murder. You can imagine how well that went over on Music Row. Red Headed Stranger follows a fugitive on the run from the law after killing his wife.
2. Townes Van Zandt – Pancho and Lefty – This song may or may not be about the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. It is however about betrayal, a manhunt and death. The song has been covered by
Emmylou Harris on her 1977 album, Luxury Liner and was a number one country hit in 1983 for Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
1. Johnny Cash – Folsom Prison Blues – The best of a pretty great set. A man sits in prison lamenting his lost freedom and recalling his past crime when he “Shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”