Lydia Loveless, Wheeler Walker Jr., and What It Means to Be “Outlaw” in 2016
Analyzing the “Outlaw” in “Outlaw Country
The phrase “Outlaw Country” is a pretty empty feeling phrase – not because I don’t like the genre of music, but because it doesn’t really feel like it means much beyond its own conventions. Musically speaking, it’s a type of music that’s rooted in honky tonk and folk and the early “Rock Around the Clock”-ers like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Of course, the icons of this movement will forever be men that truly operated outside the law (i.e. representing the literalness and honesty of the phrase): Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and countless others… But this “outlaw” image is something that’s been wildly exaggerated and perpetuated in the 21st century. The image of an “Outlaw” has become an odd amalgamation of cowboys, bikers, rock stars and old guard conservatives. The Wild And Wonderful Whites of West Virginia? Sons of Anarchy? Ted Nugent? “Don’t Tread on Me”? The myth of “outlaw country” exists somewhere in the heart of all of these things and yet very few of them are truly an embodiment of it.
On Facebook the other day, a friend of a Facebook friend began commenting up a storm on one of their posts. “Jim”, as we’ll call him, is someone that is generally confused by what is and isn’t outlaw country, but it’s pretty hard to blame him. We don’t live in a time when lawlessness is in vogue. Cowboys don’t exist in anything other than nostalgia, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson last hopped on bikes in Easy Rider over 45 years ago, and Willie Nelson, the last well known ‘above the law’ country star, is finding his weed smoking agenda becoming extinct. Even though “Outlaw Country” as a genre is nothing more than evocative imagery of a lifestyle than it is TRULY outlaw-ish, it still has to feel honest. As someone that’s watched more Sons of Anarchy than I’d care to admit, even that show is giving a depiction of redneck bikers being closer to white collar criminals than anything else. In fact, many of the great “outlaws” in America right now are just that: White collar. But of course we’d rather see Jax riding bareback on a motorcycle chasing down the Mayans than see him as a politician extorting funds from the local government, and so the myth lives on (although let’s be honest, if Charlie Hunnam played that local politician shirtless we’d probably watch all the same. This entire theory is based on every TV show the USA Network has had for the last 8 years.)
Jim (the Facebook friend of a friend from before) defined his “Outlaw” mentality with a few choices quotes I’d like to share here:
“Being outlaw is…not giving a damn”,
“ (it’s to) tell yourself ah hell fuck this shit hold my beer it’s about to get real”
“…(it’s like) Deadpool, a badass with a sick twisted sense of humor that cares for the ones he loves and cares”
And even with the exaggeration and poorly worded grasp of the idea, and a bastardized view of who and what Deadpool represents, it’s pretty obvious for Jim that the concept of being “outlaw” is intrinsically tied to not giving a fuck, in the same way that watching Sons of Anarchy is mostly tied into how much you want to see Jax without his shirt on: That’s not really what it’s about, but when you boil it down to its fundamental level, you can’t really argue otherwise. Because, see, if I had posted some other things he’d posted on Facebook, blindly and with no context, your thought would be “This person is distinctly NOT outlaw”.
A picture of Old Spice deodorant featuring the word “Swagger”
A screencap of the Chris Brown song he’s listening to
A taser (?)
A selfie of him appropriately wearing a Deadpool costume
All of this, naturally, got me thinking about Lydia Loveless, an artist who isn’t definitively outlaw country but DOES have a stage name that would fit perfectly in a Carson City brothel circa 1879. Jim clearly laid out a definition, poorly, but accurately, of what outlaws are viewed as now. They’re grungy, disinterested, freewheeling and apathetic to the point of being above the law. If we were to truly associate “outlaws” with any archetype in music, it would be that of the rapper, but “Outlaw Rapper” sounds dumb so country musicians are outlaws and rappers are gangsters – it’s just easier this way. In many ways, despite her move AWAY from making straight laced country music, Lydia Loveless has emerged as someone whose image is almost emblematic of the outlaw lifestyles confusing messages.
I’ll reference Loveless’s cover of Echo & The Bunnymen’s classic “The Killing Moon” for AV Undercover. This is a video of wonderful contradictions. The song itself isn’t a country track, but it’s nonetheless covered in earnest with nothing twangy about it other than Loveless’s Nashville via 2000’s emo vocals. Loveless’s decision to wear sunglasses inside comes across curious as well, either being a clear homage to the coolness of the original artists 80’s bravado, or a clear misinterpretation who gets to wear sunglasses indoors under the guise of being “cool” (Lou Reed or Howard Stern? Yes. Young up-and-coming alternative country stars performing in the offices of a nerdy online publication? No.) Does Lydia Loveless give a fuck? Or is she just trying to seem as though she doesn’t? Here in lies the convolutedness of “outlaw.”
Loveless made waves with her 2011 album Indestructible Machine. Her debut, 2010’s The Only Man, was a low key alternative country effort filled with bluegrass pick-alongs about love and heartbreak, but Indestructible Machine, released on alt-country institution Bloodshot Records, saw Loveless doubling down on slide guitars and going bigger and bolder into the country arena. She even uses country and folk pioneer Steve Earle as a placeholder for a stalker on the track “Steve Earle” and in doing so acknowledging the genres vast corners.
But since hitting the relative mainstream in 2011, Loveless’s sound has been more so defined by that Echo & the Bunnymen cover than the clear leaning country efforts of Indestructible Machine. Instead of “Steve Earle”, Loveless’s 2014 LP Somewhere Else name checks “Chris Isaak”, and songs like “Hurts So Bad”, “Head”, and “They Don’t Know” leaned much closer to the sounds of 90’s bands like The Wallflowers or Toad The Wet Sprocket, or even Tom Petty’s ‘94 album Wildflowers (seriously “Wine Lips” would’ve been great on that record.)
In an old Grantland article, Steven Hyden summed up Loveless’s shift in sound like this: “What makes Loveless (…) interesting and promising are the idiosyncrasies – how (she) integrate(s) musical tradition into singular sensibilities, and the way (she presents) American roots music as the vital, constantly changing, and even bizarre medium it truly is.” Hyden touched on the musical portion of what makes the phrase “outlaw” so interesting today, and it’s that not giving a fuck (i.e. her descent away from a more traditional country sound) has manifested itself into making outlaw country about everything OTHER than the outlaw part of it. (The other artist Hyden is talking about in that article, Sturgill Simpson, hasn’t just made removed the “outlaw” part of “outlaw country”, with his 2016 release A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, he essentially removed the “country” out of it as well, while still releasing something that is both “outlaw” AND “country” – but we’ll have to tackle the complexities of Simpson another time.)
This leads us to Real, Loveless’s 2016 album – an even further departure from her country roots. Her sound has evolved into something that’s sometimes abstract (“Out On Love”), sometimes 2000’s singer-songwriter-y (“Real”), sometimes near-whimsical (“Bilbao”), and sometimes something pretty close to that thing she was doing on her debut (“Clumps”). But one thing is pretty clear: Real is Lydia Loveless rejecting her image once again even MORE drastically than before. In fact, at times Real is almost pop-like in its precision without every really striving to hit the notes of what we’ve become accustomed to being pop country, and Real is arguably her most accessible record because of this.
Jim and, to some extent I, would argue that not caring is the archetype of an outlaw. It kind of has to be, really. So even if being an outlaw really is an amalgamation of a lot of different types of imagery (probably the ones that Jim is thinking of,) those things don’t really matter because you can’t represent all those other images without clear emotional detachment from reality. And this is probably a safe way to perceive this idea going forward, considering we have no room for traditional outlaws in 2016, not in a conventional way anyhow. In the 1985 Albert Brooks comedy Lost In America, Brooks’ character constantly refers to the fact that he’s planning on Easy Rider-ing it across the country, using “What Would Jack Nicholson Do?” as a fundamental mantra throughout the film. But that film, released almost 30 years ago, tellingly reveals that even in the mid 80’s, the concept of the “outlaw” had changed extensively. Even in his ambition to be freewheelin’, live on the edge and appropriately not give a fuck, Brooks cannot help but be self-conscious about doing so. Over her career, that’s been Loveless: Wanting to fit into an archetype while being self-conscious of its limitations and creative ambitions. All along Loveless was always wearing those sunglasses in doors, hoping everyone just accepted that she was cool enough to pull it off and not question whether she was sincerely apathetic or not.
Loveless knows that when she sings “And by Texas, I know I’ll be ready to crack / Well, that’s where I almost killed you, but honey give me one more chance,” she’s evoking imagery that falls on brand with the outlaw country mission statement, even if her music leans decidedly closer to indie acts like Ryan Adams or big dick rock acts like Foo Fighters than it does, say, Hank III. But Jim identifies himself as outlaw as well, and his Chris Brown songs and swaggy deodorant don’t seem to be detractors for him, so why would they be for Loveless? We can get one thing straight: Jim is ignorant to the ideas that surround true outlaw-ness, but Loveless is simply indifferent, which gives her the punk rock edge that existed within the outlaw country’s roots since the beginning.
Jim’s comments made me think about another artist that’s parading around under the guise of outlaw country, and that would be Wheeler Walker Jr. If you listen to interviews with Wheeler, he certainly fits the part – indifferent, freewheeling, as Jim would put it, “a badass with a sick twisted sense of humor.” His debut Redneck Shit features songs like “Can’t Fuck You off My Mind”, “Fightin’, Fuckin’, Fartin’”, and “Eatin’ Pussy/Kickin’ Ass”. It’s all done with overt self-seriousness and so, at least on the outside, Wheeler truly embodies the spirit, if not maybe the literalness, of outlaw country, and for that he’s turned Nashville on its ear.
But some light internet research will reveal some disconcerting things. Born Benjamin Isaac Hoffman, Hoffman pre-Wheeler Walker Jr. was an aspiring comedian who even hosted a show on Comedy Central. Given the nature of his songs, knowing Hoffman as a comedian helps explains lines like “Fuck my cousin in her asshole ‘fore I finished on her tits / Then I shoot my neighbor’s cat / I love that redneck shit.” Maybe Hoffman really believes in the material he’s putting out as Wheeler Walker Jr., and maybe it is as self-serious as he claims it is. But maybe it’s all a joke. Or a cash grab. The potential illusion of Wheeler Walker Jr. as a rough ‘em tough ‘em country star is enough for most people to accept him as the savior of modern country and, more importantly, someone that is going to put the “outlaw” flavor back into the mainstream. But for some, that potential illusion is just validation that he can’t be trusted. A valid third answer, and the one I would argue, is: Does it even matter?
Fans feel betrayed all the time. They feel betrayed for petty and stupid reasons, and they feel betrayed by very real reasons, but most of the time for petty and stupid reasons. Should fans feel betrayed by Loveless for moving away from the style of country that made her popular? Of course not. Does it make her less outlaw country? On the contrary, it probably makes her more outlaw than before. She’s an artist and she’s indifferent to your pleas. Should fans feel betrayed by the potential work that is Wheeler Walker Jr.? Of course not. He delivered an album that’s emblematic of what people like Jim believe IS outlaw country and, even if it is a work, he can’t take that album away. In the era of blatantly law abiding outlaw country and white collar crime, the genre has desperately needed to exist in mysterious flux of intent and honestly, and artists like Loveless and Wheeler are the best thing for it.