This post begins a long-overdue (and potentially endless) series on the gems of country music’s Outlaw variety, which was initially predicated on the raw, coarse, and unyielding boot-scuffing that had been lost in Nashville’s popularizing of country music in the 1960s and 70s. With the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard, Outlaw country sought to do exactly what they believed country music was always meant to do, from the days of Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers, which was, in short, exactly whatever they wanted to do. With louder guitars than Nashville, meaner songwriting than Nashville, and better 4th of July picnics than Nashville, the Outlaws held a honky-tonk signpost for what country music always was to be–an evocation of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” a life that rides the ups and downs, looks for love along the highways–a life of the “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.” In short, Outlaws, by doing exactly what they wanted to do, were telling Nashville–and you!–that this is you, too, if you admitted it. That’s why we love them, because who isn’t trying to find “A Soft Place to Fall“?
Outlaw country is all about freedom. Though the movement itself and its current derivatives have at times transcribed this freedom onto a kind of purist, nostalgic, one-dimensional American vision, its core is somewhere else. The Outlaws, like Haggard, like the earliest days of country music, sang about a personal freedom that allowed them to escape the bondage of constraint. Simply, they are lonesome cowboy songs that at once glorify such rugged individuality–the booze, the open road, the music–and bawl out with longing at ‘the leaving train.’ It is an honest interpretation of not just the rugged cowboy, but the human heart’s inner-outlaw: the fugitive bound to run, the fugitive bound to be alone.
Few communicated what could be coined an outlaw’s ars poetica like Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever.” And who knows better than Merle? A bastard-child in and out of the juvenile justice system of California, a chronic gambler, thief, and drug-user, currently in his fifth marriage, Haggard is known to say after his three years in San Quentin State Prison that his freedom was “the loneliest feeling he ever had,” that he wished he could go back. He is known to be The Original Outlaw, and “Ramblin’ Fever” is one of the quintessential mission statements.
My hat don’t hang on the same nail too long
My ears can’t stand to hear the same old song
And I don’t leave the highway long enough
To bog down in the mud
Cause I’ve got ramblin’ fever in my blood
I caught this ramblin’ fever long ago
When I first heard a lonesome whistle blow
If someone said I ever gave a damn
They damn sure told you wrong
I’ve had ramblin’ fever all along
Ramblin’ fever, the kind that can’t be measured by degrees
Ramblin’ fever, there ain’t no kind of cure for my disease
The song chugs like a train on the way out, and Haggard makes certain to declare this is the way of life, that the highway is never left long enough to “get bogged down in the mud.” This is his, and our, ramblin’ fever. We leave. We run away. And we are wired to do so. It’s not his raising, it’s who we are. We’ve “had ramblin’ fever all along,” it can’t be measured, and it’s a terminal illness. Even when we are lured in to bed down for rest, to seek comfort, our longings for freedom get the best of us. Even if it’s a good rest, our good rest falls perverted by our mind’s distortion of it–the fever makes a home a prison, and the fever runs us from what’s best for us. As the law is good, so does the law make outlaws of us all.