Today’s special post is related to a recent post about one of our favorite albums, Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which revived interest in westerns when “El Paso” became a surprise late 50s hit. Robbins, of course, revisited similar themes in follow-up albums, and many others (Notably Frankie Laine) created imitations. Over time the western faded from popularity again, this time to be revived in the 70s by “outlaw” singers like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Nelson even recorded an original horse opera of his own, The Red Headed Stranger, which tells the story of a fugitive on the run after killing his wife.
Tom Russell is one of the greatest living composers of outlaw westerns, and occasionally alt-country artists like Uncle Tupelo have produced genuine classics. We’ll hear from performers spanning seven decades today as we visit the outlaw ballad and listen to some favorites.
More than anyone else Waylon Jennings figured out the appeal of the outlaw on this 1972 album, which introduced the “outlaw” Waylon we’d learn to love. The classic title track also introduced country listeners to an underappreciated song writer, Lee Clayton. Here it is:
What he doesn’t have to say is that while the ladies love outlaws, the men want to be them. Not as widely played then or remembered now as Waylon’s masterpiece, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”, this song reintroduced the outlaw to country music after years in exile while Nashville pop singers tried to compete with the Beatles.
This next trio comes from groups pushed to the fringes of the music they helped revive. The first track is The Byrds’ recording of the Woody Guthrie standard “Pretty Boy Floyd” from the seminal country-rock record, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Heavily under the influence of fortunate son Gram Parsons, the Byrds explored country music with the same musicianship and sincerity they devoted to folk music years earlier. The next track is the first from Parsons’ own final album – Its a seldom seen favorite in such high demand that we can sell a copy in minutes if I post its arrival at the shop on Facebook (We have reasonably priced reissues of the two Gram Parsons solo LPs, too).
The third track is by Dead-affiliated country group New Riders of the Purple Sage. In it, singer Dave Nelson spreads the news about the 1897 Glendale Train robbery. That somebody, of course, was the new James Gang in its first crime since they were run out of town by the good people of Northfield, Minnesota three years earlier.
Can’t leave the James Gang behind without hearing a track from the 1980 concept album by songwriter Paul Kennerley. Jesse James is played by Levon Helm and in this track Charlie Daniels plays Cole Younger, recalling the disastrous attempted robbery in Northfield (Yes, we’ve posted this song before…Its just that good).
Jesse James first appeared in song on a 1924 record by Bascom Lamar Lunsford which introduced the now-familiar narrative that portrays James as the Robin Hood of the American West, much as Woody Guthrie would do with “Pretty Boy Floyd”. The famous song “Jesse James” has since been recorded by folk singers and pop stars ranging from Woody Guthrie to the Pogues. Most recordings feature this chorus:
Well Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life / And three children how they were brave!
And the dirty coward who shot Mister Howard / Has laid poor Jesse in his grave
The appeal of the outlaw ballad expands far beyond the nation which created this humble folk hero. Here is a song by a British skiffle group, the Beatles, from what appears by its plain jacket to be an amateur private press release. This is their song, “Rocky Raccoon”:
What a delightful group – I’m sure they’ll go far.
This song by Bob Dylan is his original recording of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” which was issued on the album Blood on the Tracks. I have always preferred this recording because Dylan renders the sprawling western narrative with more enthusiasm, not out of any disdain for the Minneapolis band which backs him on the re-recorded tracks. “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is also unique as the only of the omitted New York recordings to have not surfaced on some compilation or another in official release. In keeping with our outlaw theme, you are hearing a bootleg!
A less likable figure is featured in this next recording by Beck. “Stagger Lee” is a well-known song which tells the story of Lee Shelton, whose 1895 murder of an acquaintance brought him infamy. Beck’s recording comes from a compilation, Avalon Blues, on which modern performers interpret the songs of Mississippi John Hurt. Hurt, of course, did not actually write the standard, although his may be the finest recording. Beck’s version is simple and tasteful and I thought worthy of inclusion here.
America’s greatest balladeer wrote a number of songs about outlaws and recorded his own “Jesse James”. Woody Guthrie also adapted Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in his “Tom Joad Blues” and here uses the form of “Jesse James”:
Woody Guthrie’s “Jesus Christ” is one of the most revolutionary songs in American popular music and something few artists would have the courage to say today.
This second Woody Guthrie song is much lighter in content, but still features a great outlaw. Gypsy Davy is the worst kind of outlaw: The one who steals your woman. Woody’s son Arlo featured this rendition of the story of “Gypsy Davy” on the overlooked gem Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.
When listening to this next song, do not adjust your set – This is just how the record sounds. Its Tex Ritter’s “Blood on the Saddle”. Tex, of course, also sang the memorable theme from High Noon, which is presented here as well courtesy of Craig. Funny thing, I was standing behind the record shop counter recording a Tex Ritter record and when Craig came in I complained about the copy I was playing (“Electronically rechanneled for stereo”). He said he had a copy in his car and he really did, so you’re hearing the record Craig brought in. Who keeps Tex Ritter records in their car?
Here’s one more track from the movies:
The 1965 comedy Cat Ballou tells the story of a comely school teacher forced to become an outlaw. The film is narrated in a sense by Nat “King” Cole and Stubby Kaye, who periodically appear with banjos. In the film veteran western actor Lee Marvin plays both the hero and the villain, even shooting himself at the end.
Here is a second recording of the same song, “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, performed on the radio by Mike Mills and Peter Buck.
Since we gave Waylon the first word with “Ladies Love Outlaws” we’ll end today’s playlist with a song from Marty Robbins’ More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Here he is an outlaw’s song, “I’ve Got No Use For The Women”:
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