The rogue western figure has been making its way back into pop culture recently, not only with musicians like country artists like Jamey Johnson and Kacey Musgraves, but also in television and movies, most notably with the Elmore Leonard (RIP) adapted FX series Justified. Between Justified’s season finale Tuesday night and the Archer season surrounding Cherlene turning into an outlaw country star (“OUTLAW COUNTRY!”), here are our 10 favorite country outlaws.
10. Merle Haggard
Haggard was part of the old guard of outlaw country musicians, and while many of his peers were singing sweet songs about the country life, Merle was living a more rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle and stepping out musically. His 1969 hit “Okie from Muscogee” has become an outlaw country anthem of sorts, showing pride in his country roots but still remaining a rebel at heart.
9. Jason Isbell
Leaving southern rockers Drive-By Truckers behind in 2007, Alabama’s Jason Isbell has become one of the most promising young songwriters, and while he has sobered and married up, Isbell still has an renegade spirit to his music.
8. Waylon Jennings
Waylon Jennings is the first of the four members of the Highwaymen (Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash), the outlaw country equivalent of the Traveling Wilburys, to make this list. Jennings in the 70’s embodied outlaw country, by refusing to fit the polished sounds of Nashville and instead making a rougher update of honky tonk.
7. David Allan Coe
I was unfamiliar with Coe when we made this list, but Austin pushed hard for Coe and I can see why. Coe is a big personality vocally, sung about getting in trouble and being on the run, and lived a true renegade lifestyle synonymous with outlaw country.
6. Steve Earle
Being propped up by his roles in David Simon’s The Wire and Treme, Earle has gained a second life musically by gathering a new generation of fans. Rebellious yet earnest, Steve Earle lands at the crossroads of outlaw country and heartland rock, thanks to his love to another outlaw on our list, Townes Van Zandt.
5. Willie Nelson
Really known as the face of outlaw country, Willie got penalized on this list for his work with Toby Keith, and we have a strict saying for anything related to Toby Keith: “No thank you.”
4. Kris Kristofferson
Probably the most underrated of the Highwaymen, Kris Kristofferson had a way with words and telling interesting and intelligent stories.
3. Lucinda Williams
The smoky-voiced Lucinda Williams can also write a song with the best of them, but she is also has sort of a biker-chick edge to her. Her 1998 album Car Wheels On a Gravel Road is an absolute gem and good starting point for Lucinda’s music, if you aren’t familiar with it.
2. Townes Van Zandt
Sort of the Velvet Underground of country, Townes is every country musician’s favorite musician, and with good reason. While he never reached the commercial success of many of his peers, he has left beyond a greater legacy of timeless songs than maybe any other country musician. “If I Needed You”, “Pancho and Lefty”, and “To Live is to Fly” are just a few of the legendary songs he left behind after he tragically died in 1997 due to a heart attack related to addiction.
1. Johnny Cash
We just came off a bit of a Johnny Cash week in March with the release of his surprisingly good lost-80’s album Out Among the Stars and our Top Ten Johnny Cash songs list, Johnny Cash was truly an outlaw at heart and had the brilliant tunes to match it, making him the obvious choice for number one on this list.
Todd – Todd Snider
Maybe the most borderline outlaw country artist on this list since he isn’t too country, Snider is still truly a rebel at heart, and his songs are country at heart even if they don’t sound the part.
Wes – Drive-By Truckers
We all love Jason Isbell, but I was surprisingly the only one in the group pushing for Drive-By Truckers. Sure they are southern rock, but they are still rebels at heart, and write a song as well as they can wield a bottle of whiskey.
Austin – Jamey Johnson
The shaggy Nashville artist Jamey Johnson has reignited the spirit of dark spirit of the early country outlaws, and has gotten plenty of acclaim for it.