Austin: Willie Nelson and the American Outlaw

Essential Question

What does it mean to be an “outlaw” in the American imagination, and how did Willie Nelson represent that image?


What do deadly gunfighters, notorious bank robbers, rogue sheriffs, secret spies, polarizing activists, nonconforming artists, and the Founding Fathers of the United States have in common? All could be considered outlaws, despised by some for breaking with established rules and norms, yet admired by others for the same reason.

The outlaw is an essential character in the American story. From the earliest settlers, to the leaders of the Revolution, to the fortune-seeking adventurers who pushed America’s boundaries westward, the American allegiance to Constitution and democratic governance has often been juxtaposed with the love of a rebel’s individualistic spirit. Many Americans are proud of the systematic checks and balances within their well-ordered government, but romanticize the notion of breaking away to live life on one’s own terms regardless of the consequences.

In American popular culture, the most notorious outlaws come mostly from the “Wild West,” the lands west of the Mississippi River that were just becoming settled in the mid-19th century. From Kansas to California, communities sprung up without the structure, or protections, civil institutions provide. There, archetypal “Wild West” rogues like Jesse James and “Wild” Bill Hickok, who are among the several outlaws featured in this lesson, pursued financial gain and self-preservation by any means necessary. Though they often acted selfishly and died violently, the outlaws of the “Wild West” era retain popularity as a symbol of the liberated individual.

The West is no longer so wild. Yet, the mystique of the outlaw persists in popular culture, and musicians across genres continue to adopt the image of the outlaw as part of their personae. 

Willie Nelson tried to live within the mold of Country music and Southern life. He spent the late 1950s and entire 1960s mostly in Nashville, where he wrote and recorded songs. Nelson achieved a modicum of success, but by 1970, his career was in a rut. Looking for inspiration, he left Nashville and returned to his home state of Texas, settling in Austin. Nelson found his niche in the diverse Austin music scene, uniquely positioning himself between Country music and hippy-influenced Rock. By embracing these seemingly disparate genres Nelson created a new subgenre: Outlaw Country.

Outlaw Country is not only defined by its sound–its mere location outside of the Country music capital Nashville marked it as rogue as well. Nelson later formed The Highwaymen, a supergroup that included other country music artists associated with an “outlaw” approach to their craft and careers: Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. Nelson’s songs and freewheeling live performances veered far from the conservative aesthetic of much of the Country music being created in Nashville. Nelson, in a sense, became an outlaw, making music that seemed to buck the rules and regulations of his industry. And his popularity only increased. 

In this lesson, students explore the concept of the outlaw through clips from Sonic Highways and images of Nelson’s work during the early outlaw period. Students will consider the idea of the outlaw as part of American identity more broadly, learning about a series of famous individuals that lived outside of the law, for either good or bad reasons.   

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • About the role the outlaw figure plays in American identity, and how the term’s use depends on context and perception
    • About several famous American outlaws
    • About Willie Nelson’s unique career as a country music artist
    • How Willie Nelson’s outlaw approach to his career had a profound influence on the Country music industry
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Through analysis of text and images, students will be able to position the concept of the outlaw within American culture, and explain how Willie Nelson used the outlaw image to further his career.