Top 10 Outlaw Country Pioneers

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Merle Haggard - Photo: UMG Nashville
Photo: courtesy of UMG Nashville

Famed for an anti-establishment stance and a love of the earthier end of the country music spectrum, ‘outlaw country’ artists are performers who have rejected the slick production values and popular structures of the highly stylised Nashville sound and simply gone their own sweet way. Alive or dead, uDiscover’s Top 10 Outlaw Country Pioneers walked it like they talked it and their music continues to inspire the finest country music artists today.

Waylon Jennings
Texas-born Waylon Jennings recorded extensively for A&M during the 1960s, but hated the Nashville establishment, once saying “they kept trying to destroy me”. After gaining creative control with a new deal with RCA, early 70s LPs Lonesome, On’ry And Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes yielded considerable success.

Emmylou Harris
Initially coming to prominence singing on doomed country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons’ legendary solo albums GP and Grievous Angel, Alabama native Harris has won 13 Grammys and worked with the likes of Bob Dylan and Roy Orbison. ‘Elite Hotel’, ‘Blue Kentucky Girl’ and ‘In My Dreams’ are among her catalogue of classics.

George Jones
Famous for his wild lifestyle and tempestuous marriage to Tammy Wynette, George Jones’ 60-year career also yielded a monster 150 hits including ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ and his signature song ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’.

Townes Van Zandt
Magnificent Texan-born singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt achieved posthumous fame when Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard covered his song ‘Pancho & Lefty’, but he spent much of his life playing small venues, living in basic accommodation and battling alcoholism and bipolar disorder.

Merle Haggard
During his youth, California-born Merle Haggard road freight trains and ended up in jail for a string of offences. Turning his life around, he later scored 38 No 1 hits on the US Country Charts (including ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ and ‘Okie From Muskogee’) and became one of outlaw country’s most iconic figures.

Steve Earle
Hailing from Virginia, Steve Earle has experienced everything from drug addiction to incarceration, but he’s come through and has amassed an awesome catalogue ranging from 1986’s Guitar Town to 2017’s So You Wanna Be An Outlaw.

Loretta Lynn
The daughter of a Kentucky coal miner, the trailblazing Loretta Lynn taught herself to play guitar and established her career from the bottom up, scoring hits with hard-hitting songs about blue-collar women’s issues such as birth control (‘The Pill’) and repeated childbirth (‘One’s On The Way’).

Johnny Cash
Perhaps the very epitome of the outlaw country icons, Arkansas-born Johnny Cash beat off alcohol, drugs and repeated run-ins with the law to sell over 90 million records and become one of the giants of the music industry.

Willie Nelson
Living the life of a hellraising, anti-establishment figure did nothing to curtail Willie Nelson‘s rise to the very top of the outlaw country tree, thanks to evergreen 70s albums such as Shotgun Willie and Red Headed Stranger.

Hank Williams
He lived fast and died aged just 29, yet Hank Williams continues to inspire rebellious roots musicians the world over with his legendary standards such as ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Cry’.

Have we left any Outlaw Country artists out? Let us know below…

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  1. Amy Black

    April 3, 2018 at 4:59 am

    Pretty sure Waylon Jennings should be on that list!

    • Rand

      April 3, 2018 at 11:59 am

      Waylon is pictured second.

  2. Rand

    April 3, 2018 at 11:59 am

    Waylon is pictured second.

  3. Billydon Church

    April 3, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    Where is Kris Kristopherson?

  4. Carl Miller

    June 21, 2018 at 3:05 am

    No waylon? No David Allan Coe? Billy Joe Shaver? You would think you would do research before writing this non sense.

  5. Briggs

    November 3, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    Any list that about outlaw country that does not include Doug Sahm is not a legitimate list about outlaw country.

  6. Smilin cott

    December 14, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Seriously, no David Allen Coe, Billy Joe Shaver… – either you get “outlaw” or you dont. The Author of the author of this does not…

  7. The Cowboy

    January 11, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    David Allan Coe deserves #1.. How the hell could you forget David Allan Coe out of anyone?

  8. tx4ever

    March 19, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    As great as they were, I do not understand why Loretta and George Jones are on this list.

    If not conceived in, Outlaw Country was born in Austin, Texas and a ten name list cannot begin to handle the many contributors. Everyone has their favorites, but being a Texan from birth and living in Austin in the 70’s, I have to throw Jerry Jeff Walker into the discussion. Unlike others, I have never held Jerry Jeff’s yankee background against him. No one is perfect and he
    is the poster child of the catchphrase – “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could,” in spirit and in deed.

  9. Dominic

    April 27, 2020 at 6:44 am

    No Kris Kristoffeson? No David Allen Coe?

  10. Eugene Boulware

    May 10, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    Why is Ernest Tubb not on your list?

  11. Paul Garner

    May 12, 2020 at 10:59 pm

    Guy Clark wasn’t mentioned ….

  12. Tom

    January 15, 2021 at 12:10 am

    Jerry Jeff would be my 1st pick

  13. Jen

    July 11, 2021 at 4:30 pm

    These “outlaws” sang songs written by Blaze Foley. He was an Zandt’s best friend and they toured together. Blaze was known to sing along with Van Zandt on Pancho and Lefty. He never confirmed to the what Country Music feel and even felt then what was politically acceptable. He was raised deeply religious and though he was cynical his belief system was to the left. Watch the movie Blaze on Netflix’s. It is based off the novel Living in the Woods in a Treehouse by his what many considered his wife Sybil Rose.

  14. Jen

    July 11, 2021 at 4:35 pm

    David Allen Come deserve ms no recognition considering the majority of his music was extremely racist and his love to call black humans people just like you, gleefully used the N word in his songs. That’s not music that’s trash.

  15. steve vernon

    July 30, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    Missed Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allen Coe and Kris

  16. Iby

    September 9, 2021 at 3:18 am

    David Allen Coe IS the legendary country OUTLAW. Period! The rest is not. They are older country singers.
    Further more NO he was or is NOT racist. He explains his choice of words based on the prison language in very few of his songs. Unlike rap songs of today. If you do not know him then its not right to judge him. He holds the title guaranteed!

  17. Margaret A Ross

    December 16, 2021 at 10:11 pm

    Gram Parsons. Very definitely an outlaw in his own right. Undaunted although probably saddened by his lack of commercial success he stuck to his vision of hip, rockin’, bluesy country and supported other musicians whom he believed in (including the divine Miss Harris). Gram didn’t follow anyone’s rules but his own.

  18. Ruben Salcido

    February 3, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Like Jerry Jeff, you left out Johnny Paycheck. Also from a different part of the country, but nonetheless a contributing outlaw.

  19. ben seaton

    February 13, 2022 at 6:00 pm

    Billy Joe Shaver!

  20. Rose Brandt

    December 2, 2022 at 2:42 am

    Emmylou Harris is from Virginia, not Alabama.

  21. Hal

    February 3, 2023 at 4:22 pm

    Jessi Colter – one of the best!

  22. Gary

    May 6, 2023 at 10:42 pm

    Waylon is listed ,like mentioned David Allan COE is trash. I would have listed Gary Stewart, Johnny Paycheck and Tanya Tucker,Dean Dillon, Hank Williams, Jr. and Jerry Jeff Walker

  23. Maggie

    May 17, 2023 at 6:44 pm

    I’d say David Allen Coe should be right up there on top. What’s up with that. He wrote songs for most of the old time country stars.

  24. Betty j. Pierce

    July 6, 2023 at 9:40 pm

    Where is Kris krissofferson ??? On the outlaw list. One of my favorite???

  25. Bob

    July 23, 2023 at 10:33 am

    Kris Krissofferson not on the list are you kidding me how much more outlaw can you get besides turning down an appointment as a Rhodes Scholar to write bad ass tunes like he wrote. Glad to see Steve Earl mad this list.

  26. Red

    August 1, 2023 at 2:40 am

    Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Paycheck, Kris Kristofferson, David Allan Coe,

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