Outlaw Country: 12 Most Badass Items at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
From Willie Nelson’s well-worn sneakers to Bobby Bare’s mink-skull hat - the must-see artifacts at the Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70s exhibit in Nashville
By Joseph Hudak
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville follows the wild success of its Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats exhibit with a deep dive into the Outlaw country era.
Opening May 25th and running for nearly three years, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s traces the origins of the movement, beginning with Bobby Bare’s game-changing 1973 album Lullabyes, Legends and Lies through the rise of Waylon, Willie, and the boys.
A full multimedia experience, the exhibit features essays on little-known but integral figures, like college football coach Darrell Roy, new video packages – including a can’t-miss history of the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin – and a cache of memorabilia from Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and more.
Ahead of Outlaws & Armadillos‘ opening to the public, Rolling Stone Country toured the showcase to assemble this list of must-see artifacts. (Photos by Jordan ’Donnell.)
Kris Kristofferson’s résumé is one of country music’s most eclectic. The Renaissance Man was a janitor, a boxer, and a helicopter pilot before becoming one of the genre’s most celebrated songwriters. While Kristofferson, like his longtime friend Johnny Cash, favored black in his manner of dress, he once sported Army green as a captain and Airborne Ranger.
This government-issued utility shirt, with his name above the right breast pocket, is on display next to another artifact from Kristofferson’s storied history: the lobby card for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he starred as the titular gunslinger.
The Red Headed Stranger is well-represented in Outlaws & Armadillos, but don’t expect to find some pair of Texas shit-kickers. Rather, Nelson favored more manly footwear throughout the Seventies: these comfy blue sneakers nodded to his hippie ways and affinity for running and biking.
One of his iconic bandannas is also on display (blue, not the more closely associated red), along with a hat made for him in Austin that features his initials on the band.
Not all of the must-see items in the exhibit are three-dimensional. These rare photos of Waylon Jennings adorn a wall adjacent a case dedicated mainly to Jennings, Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter.
A series of candids, they depict the seminal outlaw, wide-eyed and in full badass getup: black hat, black boots, leather vest, cigarette in hand.
The photographs are from the personal collection of Rolling Stone writer and Seventies outlaw confidante Chet Flippo, who died in 2013.
The influence of the first lady of outlaw country, Jessi Colter, is felt throughout the exhibit in interviews, photos and in two distinct fashions.
She sported this suede blouse and skirt on the cover of That’s the Way a Cowboy Rocks and Rolls, her 1978 album produced by husband Waylon Jennings and longtime drummer Richie Albright. The dress she wore for the eye-catching album art to her 1975 LP I’m Jessi Colter is also on display.
The Rev. Will . Campbell may not be a recognizable name to most country music fans, but the self-christened “bootleg preacher” played a key role in the Outlaw era. He was a frequent ear, adviser and drinking buddy to artists from Kris Kristofferson to Waylon Jennings, who, according to the exhibit, referred to him as his “guru.” (Jennings even had him baptize his son with Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings.)
This copper still was used by Campbell and songwriter Tom T. Hall to make their own whiskey.
One of the highlights of the exhibit – and where it gets half of its name – is the story of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the Austin country-rock outpost that helped foster the Outlaw mindset and music.
Artist manager Eddie Wilson co-founded the club and carried around this leather armadillo-adorned briefcase, whose varmint logo was designed by Jim Franklin. Franklin’s psychedelic posters, including one that announced Willie Nelson’s first ever gig at the venue (for a cover charge of a mere two bucks), were a signature of the scene.
When Bobby Bare recorded 1973’s Bobby Bare Sings Lullabyes, Legends and Lies, a concept record of Shel Silverstein compositions, he picked his own players and produced the album himself. Both were no-no’s in Music City at the time, but the album was a success, refreshing Bare’s career and giving him a hit with the voodoo queen Number One “Marie Laveau.”
The greater impact, however, was how the double-LP emboldened other artists, like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, to push for their own creative freedom in the studio. This outrageous hat, adorned with a mink skull and snake skin, was a gift from Nelson to Bare.
The Outlaws & Armadillos showcase has a number of important guitars in its collection, but few as impactful as this 1952 Gibson SJ-200, owned by Cowboy Jack Clement. It was the lifelong guitar of the producer, songwriter, artist and bon vivant, who played it on two of Johnny Cash’s most well-known hits: “Ring of Fire” and “Big River.” He also used the instrument to write “Let’s All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues),” a song recorded by Waylon Jennings for his 1975 LP Dreaming My Dreams.
Long before he got psychedelic with the Sir Douglas Quintet, Doug Sahm was a cute and uber-talented child star of the 1950s. Performing as “Little Doug Sahm,” the San Antonio native captivated audiences with his skill on the steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle. His triple-neck steel, built in the Forties, is on display – as is this pint-sized Western suit made for Sahm by his mother.
While Willie Nelson may have spilled the beans on the troublemaking ways of his longtime drummer Paul English in the 1971 song “Me and Paul,” the percussionist got his nickname “The Devil” more for the way he looked. Sharp sideburns, red leather boots with silver tips and this ornate velvet cape had English, who still plays with Nelson today, cementing his look as both a demon and a dandy. (The adjacent satin “On the Road Again” jacket was worn onstage by Nelson guitarist Jody Payne, who died in 2013.)
“My father had a Randall knife / my mother gave it to him / when he went off to WWII / to save us all from ruin” sing-speaks Guy Clark in the intro to his song “The Randall Knife,” off 1983’s Better Days. This is that knife, gifted to Clark’s dad by his mother prior to his shipping out for World War II. But the more personal bit of Clark memorabilia may be the original painting by Guy’s wife Susanna Clark, which graces the cover of the songwriter’s 1975 Old No. 1 album.
Aside from his trusty Martin guitar, there is no more essential element to Willie Nelson’s signature sound than Mickey Raphael. The harmonica player has been standing next to Nelson since 1973, adding subtle accents in the studio and onstage with the Family Band. Raphael’s dad built this simple wooden case to hold his harps, which is on display next to a much more expensive (but arguably no more valuable) piece of Raphael’s history: a gold “Willie Nelson” ring with diamonds he wears onstage.