It was all so brilliant – progressive country music and creative marketing coming together in seamless, cohesive fashion. The meld of seemingly polar opposites created a powerful magnetic force in the album Wanted! The Outlaws, a joint effort from Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jennings’ wife Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. Wanted! The Outlaws, released January 12, 1976, rode to No. 1 on the country charts and No. 10 on the pop charts, making it a bona fide crossover smash. The record also carved out a slice of history as it became the first country album to receive the newly-established Platinum certification, marking sales of one million copies.
Wanted! The Outlaws is long considered one of the most influential and groundbreaking albums in country history. As it celebrates its 45th anniversary, we delve into the album’s background, hit singles, and the legacy that remains vibrant decades down the line.
During the 1970s, the so-called “Outlaw” movement was brandishing a double-barreled assault on the confines of country music. Like other musical revolutions, Outlaw country started as a reaction to current trends, in this case, the pop-influenced stylings of the Nashville Sound, which proved commercially successful but was often derided by purists as formulaic and shallow. Outlaw music had its roots in earlier genres, such as rockabilly, honky tonk, rock, and traditional country, and was characterized by a more progressive sound and a maverick, rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Leading the attack were such away-from-the mainstream stars as Jennings and Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe, and Guy Clark. Colter, who apparently adopted her stage name after a reputed accomplice of Jesse James, was one of the few females prominent in the outlaw genre. Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album in 1973 is usually considered by historians and reviewers as the first album of the Outlaw movement, paving the way for Nelson’s highly popular concept album Red Headed Stranger and others.
The term “Outlaw” also became a rallying cry for artists who wanted creative control over their music. They rebelled against the standard record label practices of being told what to record, who would produce their songs, and even who would play on them. Jennings and Nelson were two of the artists able to gain that all-important freedom. “For us, ‘outlaw’ meant standing up for your rights, your own way of doing things,” Jennings stated in his autobiography Waylon. “It felt like a different music, and ‘outlaw’ was as good a description as any.”
SHAPING THE ALBUM
The Outlaw movement was generating its share of industry buzz, and the RCA label seemed determined to capitalize on it. Producer Jerry Bradley convinced Jennings to compile some of his recordings with some old Nelson songs into an album called Wanted! The Outlaws. From all apparent reports, Jennings personally detested the “Outlaw” monicker but recognized it as a sharp, cutting-edge marketing ploy. He gave his approval to the project, with the provision that songs featuring his friend Tompall Glaser would be included.
Wanted! The Outlaws consisted mostly of previously released material, but all the selections played into the pervading “outlaw” theme. The album kicked off with the somber, introspective tune, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” the first major success for songwriter Sharon Vaughn. Jennings performed it solo for the Outlaws record, and Nelson scored a No. 1 hit with it in 1980 after releasing it as a single.
Easily, the biggest cut from the album was the rowdy “Good Hearted Woman,” which Jennings had released as a single in 1972. This time out, Jennings and Nelson performed the song as a duet, at least in the technical sense in that two distinct voices were heard. But the two artists were never actually in the same place at the same time. In 1975, Jennings remixed his live concert version of the song for the album, using Nelson’s dubbed in vocal and adding canned audience applause to various sections, ramping up the “live” flavor of the track. In The Billboard Book of Number One Country Hits, Jennings explained, “I just took my voice off and put Willie’s on in different places. Willie wasn’t within 10,000 miles when I recorded it.” Who could tell? Certainly not the listening and buying public. “Good Hearted Woman” shot to No. 1 on the country charts in February of 1976, staying at the top for three weeks, and peaked at a more-than-respectable No. 25 on the pop charts. It also won the CMA Single of the Year award.
Jennings and Colter scored the second smash hit from the album with their duet version of “Suspicious Minds,” first made famous by Elvis Presley, which landed at the No. 2 spot. Other standout tracks included a salute to the legendary Jimmie Rodgers on “T for Texas,” performed by Glaser, and Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine,” the title tune from his 1971 album. Jennings sang Billy Joe Shaver’s “Honky Tonk Heroes,” continuing the “outlaw” concept.
Wanted! The Outlaws served notice of country’s “progressive” movement, signaling that a major musical revolution lurked on the fringes. Even the cowboy-themed cover, designed to give the appearance of a Wanted poster from the Wild West, painted a hipper image of country music to the masses. Jennings, Nelson, and Glaser hardly resembled prototypical country artists, with their shaggy long hair, beards, and cool, defiant expressions, appealing to a generation raised on rebellion and rock. The record captured the fancy of both country loyalists and stone cold rockers who likely once swore that purchasing a country album would coincide with the freezing over of Hell.
“Everybody rushed out to buy the ‘Outlaws’ album – rock and rollers, kids, people who’d never bought a country album in their whole lives bought that album,” Glaser commented in the book Willie. Author Michael Streissguth, in his book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, observed, “Like Red Headed Stranger, the album tapped into America’s ongoing love affair with the western outlaw as well as each artist’s growing stature in the music community.”
Ultimately, Wanted! The Outlaws injected a sorely-needed boost into country music by opening up the door for artists outside the mainstream. It further proved that country could be accessible to a youth market. Wanted! The Outlaws won the 1976 CMA award for Album of the Year, and has gone on to sell more than two million copies.