The Story Behind Country Music’s First Platinum Album- Wanted! The Outlaws
When country music is at its best, it has the ability to bring out the ethos of communities and cultures that have long since disappeared. Whether the journey takes you to the mythological Old West with Marty Robbins, wandering a dark lost highway with Hank Williams, or even into the now rusting steel plants of Merle Haggard’s working man, the music is a way of bringing to life characters who have a tale to tell. Perhaps no album in country music history, however, has as much imagery and character behind it, as Wanted! The Outlaws by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter.
Although originally released in January of 1976, the album was really the culmination of a movement that had been gaining momentum throughout the early 1970’s. In order to understand the album, and the moment of country music history that it captured, it is important to first delve into the careers of the record’s principle artists, and the road they were paving.
Unlike other seminal albums of the 20th Century, Wanted! The Outlaws was not the result of a master plan or a great artistic vision. Instead, the album was primarily created by RCA Records to capitalize on the popularity of the so-called “outlaw movement” that had recently taken off.
After losing Willie Nelson in 1972, RCA had watched the written off artist sign with Atlantic Records in 1973, where he began to wrestle creative control away from the Nashville machine. At Atlantic, Nelson would release two critically acclaimed albums- Shotgun Willie, and the concept albums Phases and Stages. Due to the success of these records, Nelson was then able to sign with Columbia records, where he was given complete creative control over his music. At Columbia, Nelson would release his magnum opus, Red Headed Stranger, shattering all notions of what a country album could be.
While Nelson was completing his transformation into the Red Headed Stranger, Waylon Jennings was exploring new territory of his own. With his record contract up in 1973, Jennings was also courted by Atlantic records. After seeing Nelson’s success at that label however, RCA agreed to give Jennings creative control over his music, as opposed to losing another potential superstar. The first album that Jennings produced under these new conditions was 1973’s, Honky Tonk Heroes. The new record was composed by a then unknown, Billy Joe Shaver, who’s songs combined country music themes with rock and roll swagger. Brought in to help with the production of the album would be Jennings’ close friend and collaborator, Tompall Glaser, who’s Hillbilly Central studio had become the center of Nashville’s growing outlaw community. In fact, by the time that Jennings would release his 1975 #1 album Dreaming my Dream of You, Hillbilly Central would be his studio of choice.
With concept albums like Honky Tonk Heroes and Red Headed Stranger pushing the boundaries of what a country music album could sound like, Nelson and Jennings’ popularity began to soar. By bringing in a new audience, made up of people who had not traditionally been country music fans, the outlaw movement had arrived. The movement would be further fueled by Nelson’s fellow Austinites, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, composed by the pens of Bill Joe Shaver, Mickey Newbury, Steve Young and Kris Kristofferson, and propelled by Nashville stars such as Roger Miller, Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash.
After seeing the emerging outlaw country movement explode around him, RCA producer, Jerry Bradley, became painfully aware that the record label was missing out on something big. To rectify this, Bradley had an idea. The label still owned the rights to Willie Nelson’s back catalog, as well as the material that Waylon Jennings had recorded. Hoping to capitalize on the artist’s newfound popularity, Bradley wanted to create a compilation album that would reach this new, growing audience. According to Bradley:
“Waylon was selling, if we were lucky, two hundred and fifty thousand albums. Willie comes out with Red Headed Stranger and that took off and sold a million records. Jessi Colter put out, “I’m Not Lisa” on Capitol. That damn thing sold half a million, or a million, set our butt on fire. We’re sitting over there, trying to sell two hundred and fifty thousand records, and we’re still struggling.”
Bradley approached Jennings about creating the new record, which he titled, Wanted! The Outlaws. The idea was to combine Jennings’s songs with previously recorded Willie Nelson tracks. Jennings liked the idea, but insisted that Tompall Glaser also be featured on the album.
With Jennings on board, Bradley set about creating the album. Previously recorded Nelson gems such as Yesterday’s Wine and Me and Paul were chosen, as were formerly released Jenning’s hits, Honk Tonk Heroes and Suspicious Minds (a duet with wife Jessi Colter). The song, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (which would later be a #1 hit for Nelson in 1980) was introduced by Jennings as the album’s first song.
The biggest hit on Wanted! The Outlaws was Good Hearted Woman. The track had been previously recorded by Nelson and Jennings, and had served as the title track of Jenning’s 1972 album. Although it was often suggested that the track was not actually recorded live, as it seemingly used canned audience applause, the “live” performance was actually an edited version of the song as it appeared on the 1976 Waylon Live album, with Nelson’s vocals overdubbed.
Rounding out Wanted! The Outlaws were contributions by Jenning’s wife, Jessi Colter, who performed You Mean to Say and I’m Looking For Blue Eyes and Tompall Glaser’s versions of T for Texas (which had once been considered for the final song on Honky Tonk Heroes) and Put Another Log on the Fire (a Shel Silverstein composition).
Part of the marketing behind, and legacy of, the album would be the iconic cover featuring Jennings, Nelson, Colter and Glaser as desperadoes on a shot- up wanted poster. For inspiration, Bradley had combed through a Time Life book on the American Old West. Looking back on the cover, Jennings noted:
“The cover was pure Old West, Dodge City, and Tombstone. Now, we weren’t just playing bad guys; we took our stand outside the country music rules, its set ways, locking the door on its own jail cell. We looked like tramps”. It was this ethos, that would ultimately unite the album, and launch it into country music lore.
Wanted: The Outlaws was an unmistakable smash hit. The album not only topped the country charts, but it also crossed over and reached #10 on the pop charts. By the end of the year, the album would be country music’s first album to sell over a million copies. This record, comprised of the work of four unique individuals, would crystallize the outlaw movement in the larger music community. As a result, being an outlaw was the in thing to be. Soon enough, David Allen Coe, Johnny Paycheck, and Hank Williams Jr. would award the mantle to themselves, and years of outlaw acolytes would follow. While Jennings and Nelson would often bristle at the “outlaw” label, in the mind of the public the two were synonymous with the term. They had fought the Nashville machine and won, and their success would change what country music could and would be for years to come.