Country Music 1975: Progressive Elements Gain Foothold in Conservative Bastions

Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, circa 1975

Rewind to fall 1975: After writing about Texas music and the progressive country “outlaw” scene there and in Southern California for much of the year, Cash Box West Coast County Editor Stephen K. Peeples wrote an opinion column for the music trade magazine’s Nov. 22 edition.

It was the 24-year-old rookie music journalist’s first opinion piece. CB’s editor co-opted it as the magazine’s column for the week so SKP wasn’t bylined. See Page 7.

Peeples had attended the County Music Association awards ceremony in Nashville that October, when Charlie Rich, 1974’s CMA Entertainer of the Year, was the presenter of the same award. Half-drunk, he shredded the envelope, then whipped out a lighter and lit the card, letting it catch fire before announcing John Denver the winner. 

But the Nashville establishment wasn’t just getting beat up by “pop” artists like Denver and James Taylor, who weren’t products of the Nashville machine, but easily crossed over between pop and county radio at the time.

On the other flank, the “outlaws” were also challenging Nashvillian norms, while selling tons of records and playing packed shows for both country and rock fans that year.

As West Coast county editor, Peeples left the pop controversy to Cash Box’s Nashville-based editor, who had to kiss the industry’s ass so the Music Row labels and managers would also buy ads in the mag. He was far more interested in those outlaws who were giving Nashville the middle finger, and blazing new musical trails of their own in American music….

Music Doesn’t Separate Generations; Generations Separate Music

On Monday evening, Oct. 13, 1975, a man dubbed by more conservative forces in Nashville as an “outlaw,” Waylon Jennings, was chosen by the Country Music Association as Male Vocalist of the Year.

The same evening another “outlaw” named Willie Nelson took the same Grand Ole Opry stage to perform what very recently has been a No. 1 country single (and what may possibly do extremely well in the pop/rock field, based on early breakout reports from non-country AM and album-oriented rock FM stations) titled “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”

Without nomination for any award, Nelson and his band performed dressed a great deal more casually than most of the awards participants or the audience.

The headlines on the front page of the morning edition of the Nashville Banner the following day read “Willie, Waylon Bring Underground to Prime Time Focus.” Much as it did at the fore of the musical revolution during the mid-to-late ’60s in the pop/rock field, the question “who sets the criteria?” arises. What is an outlaw? Why are outlaws “underground”?

RELATED: Waylon Jennings – Ramblin’ Man (Cash Box, July 12, 1975)

The issue is related to the socio-cultural differences between establishment and counterculture and in this context the manifestations of those differences in country-oriented music.

Photo and caption from the Nov. 8, 1975 edition of Cash Box magazine, which also covered the jukebox industry and its trade association, Music Operators of America.

The present Nashvillian musical power structure represents the established status quo in country music; the “outlaws” are those considered by the said power structure to be outside the established forms and norms of country music.

“Outlaws” are also country-oriented musicians who attempted to find recognition for and success with their music in Nashville but were not accepted by the status quo. They subsequently went elsewhere to achieve success.

The term “progressive country” has been used to define the “outlaw” style of music, a style that incorporates a wide range of diverse musical influences in addition to the basic country root. But deeper than that, as Nelson stated from the podium of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association awards banquet on Sunday, Oct. 12, the word “progressive” relates “more to the attitude of the listener than to the music itself.”

Age-Old Conflict

The history of man has witnessed many conflicts between new and established forces; the history of man’s musical development has shown the same old/new conflict. And we can see from history that musical forces are larger than individual men; attempts to deny the constant evolutionary movement of music have merely delayed the inevitable change.

It is with this awareness that progressive-minded musicians of any era have openly sought new ideas and that which is distinctly different; in the context of today’s country-oriented music, progressive artists seek to broaden and expand upon their bases of influence.

It is the Nashvillian community’s belief that a country-oriented musician incorporating blues, jazz, swing, rock ‘n’ roll and other forms compromises the purity of country music.

Jimmie Rodgers incorporated many musical influences of his day in his music. We are reminded also that Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys were not accepted with open arms by the early 1940s Nashville establishment on Wills’ initial appearance there; his band wore matching suits and traveled in a bus.

Tommy Allsup Bob Wills and-his-texas-playboys

Within months, Nashville musicians wore suits and toured in buses. Wills was also the first to use a drummer on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, even though the set of drums was concealed behind a thin curtain.

The evidence exists, from the traditional folk forms brought from England to these shores nearly 500 years ago through the development of the country-oriented (or rurally oriented) forms today, that change and evolution of music is as inevitable as the evolution of the universe, of nature, of man.

CMA Choice Progressive

As evidenced by Jennings’ choice for the Male Vocalist of the Year by the establishment Country Music Association, and the growing realization that what Willie Nelson physically looks like this year is academic to their respect for his vast past, present and future contributions to country-oriented music, the established forces in Nashville are beginning to realize the inevitable dynamics of their music.

While the conflict emerged several years ago on a superficial level, i.e. length of hair or personal lifestyle, a major beginning of traditional acceptance for country progressivism arose during the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album a few years ago.

Music was the bridge between lifestyles and generations. A new mutual respect was developed further when, in subsequent months and years, traditional country musicians were no longer refusing to perform or record with long-haired country-oriented pickers and younger pickers with a great deal of respect for the musicianship of the traditional artists actively sought their elders’ knowledge and talents.

There is a growing awareness today even among the staidest producers of the “Nashville Sound” that country music, like every other form of music, is not immune to change and evolution. They are not sure at this point which direction the contemporary forces will take, and therefore feel somewhat uneasy. Most progressive-minded country musicians are hard-put to outline the course themselves, and most do not attempt to speculate. Open minds open many doors.

Music Connects Generations

Linda Hargrove, in the Oct. issue of “Hank” magazine, offered her view of country music’s progression: “Progressive country is third-generation. The first generation are people who identify country music with Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry. Then there are those who see it as being popular artists like Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Conway (Twitty) and others. So progressive country, new country, whatever, is just the third generation of country music. I imagine on down the road 20 years from now there will be another country. I hope I’m open to it then.”

(The Original Texas Playboys on “Austin City Limits” show #2, early 1976: Sleepy Johnson, fiddle; Jesse Ashlock, fiddle; Smokey Dacus, drums; Al Stricklin, piano; Leon McAuliffe, steel guitar; Keith Coleman, fiddle; Leon Rausch, vocals; Tommy Allsup, bass; Bob Kiser, guitar.)

Regardless of the type of music, another recent inter-generational chord was struck when members of Bob Wills’ Original Texas Playboys and the contemporary Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel played together during Country Music Week at Nashville’s Exit/In nightclub. The respect the younger musicians have for the expertise of their elders was matched by the elders’ joy at seeing a form of music they created played by contemporary musicians.

The openness of mind appears to be the key to bridge the chasm between old and new. The reality, the proximity to earth, and the effusive emotional content of country-oriented music appeal to people of all ages and persuasions today who seek an alternative to less viable, and less age-worthy, forms of contemporary popular music. Indigenous or rural music, regardless of its shape and scope during any given period, will continue to comprise a major part of America’s music in the future as it has in the past and present.

Labels Show Foresight

The most recent tangible example of foresight appears with the Columbia Records/Lone Star Records logo deal, whereby new artists produced by Lone Star’s Willie Nelson will be recorded, released, and distributed by Columbia Records.

The fact that Nelson is currently Columbia’s best-selling country-oriented artist, and the fact that Nelson is also garnering a rather large and usually non-country following, show that Columbia is willing to invest in the future of progressive-minded country-oriented music.

Capitol’s Jessi Colter has shown that a “peripheral outlaw” (peripheral due to her marriage with original outlaw Waylon Jennings) can appeal to large segments of the music listening and purchasing public regardless of arbitrary pop/country boundaries.

Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter
Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter (from YouTube).

Jennings, who with RCA has had the freedom to grow both personally and musically, is today being forced to eat his “I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers” statement.

Waylon and Jessi with host Ralph Emery on “Pop! Goes the Country,” Aug. 20, 1975.

He and other RCA artists like Gary Stewart (who hails from Ft. Pierce on the Florida East Coast) are showing that quality country-oriented musicians can and will arise from places other than Nashville.

From Marin County in northern California to northern Florida, from Portland to Austin, from upstate New York to Denver, Dallas, Houston and Tulsa, virtually every region of the United States now has a growing center of musical activity emanating directly from the country root.

Studios have opened in Austin, Dallas and Denver, and although they may not be as technically advanced as the studios in Nashville, Los Angeles or New York, viable alternatives to Music City, L.A., and the Big Apple will continue to grow both qualitatively and quantitatively as increasing demand dictates.

Urban Acceptance Increases

Aside from the artistic aspects of musical progression, record companies have long recognized the financial rewards gained from sales in more than one market. But today this consciousness is being taken beyond the point at which a country-oriented artist was asked to record a song specifically for crossover purposes.

The difference between that view and the present view is that companies are realizing that an artist does not have to compromise his distinctive style to cross over.

The reason for this is obvious. The appeal of country-oriented music is growing rapidly in this country, and significant increases are showing in urban areas as well. Young record buyers are becoming attuned to the music in its own right, and are educated and aware enough to know when a record has been specifically produced to cross over and when it hasn’t.

In short, commercial or formula country is as offensive to them as commercial pop music.

It is in the record companies’ enlightened self-interest to allow their country-oriented artists to create their own distinctively different styles of music, because, in the course of events evidenced already, listeners searching for reality in music are turning once again to the country root.

Urban acceptance of country forms of music has increased many-fold over the last couple of years. This is evidenced by the fact that Willie Nelson, after making an appearance at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on October 31, 1974, that essentially bombed, returned to that club (with basically the same band and material) last week to play for six totally sold out and SRO audiences over a three-night stand.

It is interesting to note that Nelson and his band received some of the heaviest response for multi-song medleys of his earliest and multitudinous country-oriented compositions, which indicated that listeners are researching beyond his most recent “Red-Headed Stranger” album. It would appear that Willie Nelson’s appeal knows no musical or geographical bounds.

Urban acceptance is also signified, at this point at least for Columbia, by the fact that sales are second-highest for country-oriented releases in the Los Angeles-based West Coast operations region.

Columbia/Epic’s West Coast field sales manager, Jack Chase, noted that southwestern regional “country sales have definitely increased in the last two years. The music is appealing to a wider range now; we have successfully shown that the stereotype labeling L.A. as strictly a hard rock market is not true.”

There is no universal answer to the question “who sets the criteria”; the question can only be answered by the individual artists, individual record companies, and individual listeners and buyers by and for themselves. The “countryness” of a given song or record is, and can only be relative to the creator and the listener.

When progressive-minded artists and musicians of today and the future recognize and learn from the diverse country-oriented styles of innovative artists like Bill Monroe, the Carters, Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Kristofferson, Jennings and Nelson, they are furthering the natural progression of American music by incorporating decades (if not centuries) of influences.

There is no form of music that is immune to change; that circle is one that will never be broken by generations of artists to come.

Stephen K. Peeples has written extensively about Texas music. He was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans (Rhino/MIPF, 1992). • Peeples was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990, and writer/producer of hundreds of WW1 programs in the preceding five years. 

Waylon Jennings and Stephen K. Peeples, RCA Records PR offices, 6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, May 12, 1975. | Photo: Matthew J. Cupp.

• His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). • Moving online, he was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). • Based in the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music TV show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). • The Santa Clarita journalist most recently was a News Editor at SCVTV’s and SVP/New Media for Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. He retired from his 46-year media career in 2021. • For more info and original stories, visit exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to Peeples’ YouTube channel.

Article: Country Music 1975: Progressive Elements Gain Foothold in Conservative Bastions
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: News and Reviews
Article Source: