Willie Nelson is instantly recognizable with his long braids, bandana, and world-weary brown eyes.
His battered guitar and Texas drawl give Nelson’s songs an endearing quality that has serenaded generations.
If you’re looking for some new musicians to add to your bandoleer, check out these contemporary artists who carry on Nelson’s outlaw country tradition.
Hit the stacks with us and find your new favorite!
Who is Willie Nelson?
Born in Abbott, Texas, in 1933, Nelson was a musician almost from the beginning. At six, he got his first guitar and wrote his first song at 13.
During summers, rather than picking cotton with the rest of the family, Nelson played in the dance halls and honky tonks to make extra money. After a brief stint at Baylor University studying agriculture, Nelson left formal education to pursue a career in music.
Willie had his first success with the record Mr. Record Man which got him his first extended gig in Houston. Nelson moved to Nashville three years later and had his first national success with the single Willingly. In 1964, something changed his life forever; he met Waylon Jennings. The two became fast friends and created a style that became known as Outlaw Country.
They grew their hair long like the hippies and openly talked about smoking marijuana. Nelson eventually moved to Austin, Texas, to capitalize on the hippie movement in the area. He played at the now infamous Dripping Springs Reunion, which inspired his own Fourth of July Picnic the following year.
Over the years, Nelson’s light has waxed and waned, but he keeps on plugging away. Nelson is also a prolific songwriter with over 330 songs to his credit. Despite some legal troubles in the 1990s, this pot-smoking renegade is an American icon worthy of imitation. And, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
How is Willie Nelson Connected to Outlaw Country?
These new artists fall squarely into the genre of outlaw country. The genre’s history is up for debate, but the release of the album Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976 clinched it. With songs from Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Coulter, and Tompall Glaser, this album named the leaders of the outlaw movement.
Rooted in blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, and rock and roll, outlaw country is a meaner and leaner version of the polished music of the 1960s and 1970s.
Nelson and Jennings also started incorporating R&B and soul music into their records. Other famous outlaws include Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Townes Van Zandt, and Steve Earle.
The Modern Outlaws
Contemporary country music is almost indistinguishable from pop. Overproduced and featuring a team of songwriters, mainstream country records are missing something. We like to think it’s the gritty, dirty, sweaty outlaw edge.
Check out these modern outlaws.
Whether she’s playing her black Fender Telecaster or her tobacco sunburst Epiphone acoustic, Jaime Wyatt is hard to miss. Wyatt brings an Americana vibe to the outlaw genre with a look straight out of the 70s and a voice to match.
At 17, Wyatt moved to Los Angeles and signed a record and licensing deal. Notably, the film Wicker Park featured Wyatt’s song Light Switch on the soundtrack.
Felony Blues, Wyatt’s first album, came out in 2017 and was inspired by eight months in jail after robbing her drug dealer. After deciding on sobriety, Shooter Jennings worked with Wyatt on her new record, Neon Cross. Top songs from both albums include Giving Back the Best of Me, Sweet Mess, and Rattlesnake Girl.
Critics love Wyatt’s ability to capture the grit of life and the tender moments that make it worth living. Most of Wyatt’s songs plumb the depths of addiction and the darker sides of life. But, she’s not afraid to cut loose and have some fun.
In an interview with The East Nashvillian, Wyatt said, “I can write both sides now. If I’d only been able to write sad songs, I might have died.”
Jaime Wyatt is one outlaw to watch!
Top Tracks: Hurt So Bad, Neon Cross, Sweet Mess, Rattlesnake Girl.
The United States Navy is an officer short, but country music is one outlaw richer. Zach Bryan is a product of the YouTube generation who started performing for friends. He started uploading his music in 2017, and his song Heading South went viral. That’s more than enough to create a music career in the modern age.
His first studio album DeAnn is dedicated to his mother, who passed away shortly before its release. Bryan’s grainy and romantic voice compliments his guerilla approach to recording. If you find one of his videos on YouTube, you’ll likely see him singing by a campfire, in his bedroom, or in his garage.
Fans love his authenticity and the sense that he’s singing just to them. The unamplified, un-mic’d videos that gained him fans and a record deal are still favorites.
After his honorable discharge from the Navy after eight years of service, Bryan headed out on tour. He has released two albums, DeAnn and Elisabeth, and has a third on deck for May of 2022. Major record deals stack up like cordwood outside the barn where he recorded his second album.
They’re not welcome. Bryan is happy to record and release music as he wants, when he wants. In his song Me and Mine, Bryan tells his fans, “We started this thing grinnin’ boys, I think we’ve gotta run/the radio man came to fuck it up as he boasts about number ones.”
If that’s not an outlaw, we don’t know what is.
Top Tracks: From Austin, Heading South, Highway Boys, Condemned.
While he’s not as new as Jaime Wyatt or Zach Bryan, we just couldn’t close this article without discussing Willie Nelson’s kid.
If “like father, like son” is true, there’s no better person to take on the outlaw country genre than Lukas Nelson. The 33-year-old son of Willie Nelson, Lukas started touring with his dad’s band when he was 13.
There is no better teacher than the road, and Lukas is a master student. After touring with his dad for several years, Lukas left to go to Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. There, he met the drummer with whom he would form Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (POTR).
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. Bookmark that. They’re the epitome of outlaw country. Steeped in country, blues, soul, and rock and roll, they’re equal parts hard-charging outlaws and thoughtful poets.
The band’s highlight is Lukas’s tasteful guitar solos and a voice that calls back to his famous father. Lukas has also appeared on several of Willie Nelson’s recent albums, ten tracks on Heroes alone.
Nelson and POTR have collaborated with greats such as Neil Young on The Monsanto Years’ album. Lukas also contributed to the film A Star Is Born with the director Bradley Cooper, and POTR played Cooper’s backing band in the movie.
With all this success, it’s hard to put Luke Nelson and POTR in the category of outlaw country. But it’s important to remember that it’s the genre that makes the man, not the other way around.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, like Shooter Jennings, have pedigree on their side. And they sound damn good.
Top Tracks: Find Yourself, Forget About Georgia, Pali Gap/Hey Baby, Just Outside Of Austin.
If You Like Willie Nelson, Try on the New Country Music Outlaws
If the glossy, xeroxed shine of contemporary country music leaves you wanting something more, may we recommend diving into the new outlaws of country music? You won’t be sorry!