Who Killed Redneck Rock?

Once upon a time there was a country music Camelot, where hippies and rednecks lived in peace. Then the “outlaws” came.
Illustration by Justin Carroll

The yellow door of the Porto-San toilet banged open and out lurched a man who fumbled with the fly of his jeans, then scratched his crotch and stared dully at a pasture decorated with scrub mesquites, the tents and quilts of four or five thousand concert-goers, a far-flung spew of garbage. The voices of Asleep at the Wheel, raised in some hymn to the ghost of Bob Wills, seemed to penetrate the man’s senses, and he lurched toward the stage where the band was performing. The man wore a soiled fedora and a short untrimmed beard. David Allan Coe, his T-shirt read. Damn Near as Big as Texas.

As the man stalked along the trail from the row of privies to the stage, concessionaires tried to entice him with hot links and packaged cookies. “I got Quaaludes!” an unlicensed peddler yelled. “Black Mollies!” Their offers went unacknowledged by the man with the Coe T-shirt. He walked with his spine braced, but his aim was unsteady and his knees buckled, which caused him to wobble and stumble. His fists were clenched. His expression was so sullen, so distorted with macho posturing, that it was hard to take seriously; an approaching girl in a long skirt mocked him, as if to tease him into a happier mood, then laughed quickly when he turned the unamused look on her. The man braked to a sudden halt, stood pondering for a couple of seconds, then swung about and started after her. Apparently unaware of her pursuer, the girl in the long skirt found an unoccupied Porto-San and closed the door behind her. Her follower stood a few feet away, arms folded across his T-shirt, waiting. His expression had still not changed. Before the door opened again, a taller bearded man wearing a knapsack came up to the waiting man and cuffed him hard on the shoulder. Staggered by the blow, the man with the soiled fedora looked ready to fight, then abruptly nodded at his grinning assailant. Side by side they stumbled down the dusty trail toward the stage. I don’t know what the man with the Coe T-shirt intended to say to the girl in the outhouse. I do know the prospect of witnessing that conversation frightened me.

Another girl stood talking to a burly security guard at the barricaded entrance to the backstage area. “This concert is so fine,” she told him. “It’s ten times better than Willie’s picnic was.” Hopefully so. According to one count, Willie Nelson’s last Fourth of July Picnic at Gonzales inspired eighteen overdoses, fifteen stabbings, and seven rapes. The backstage activity at the Outlaw Concert west of Austin was reminiscent of Nelson’s most recent festivals, though not as frenzied. Some of the insiders were old country regulars; one woman who drove up in a white finned Cadillac got out wearing a bright pink pantsuit and a Dolly Parton rack of platinum curls. Others were Austin VIPs. James Street, the former Texas quarterback, stood beneath the ten-foot stage digging his boot heel in the dirt and spitting tobacco. But the most visible backstagers were the Bandidos, whose motorcycles were parked in formation beside David Allan Coe’s trailer. The Bandidos wore uniforms of grimy denim and black leather, and they made no attempt to conceal the handguns bulging from their pockets and stuffed inside their jeans. They wanted people to see those pistols. Earlier in the day, somebody said, one of the Bandidos bloodied the face of a girl who sassed him. The concert promoters had reportedly hired the outlaw bikers to help maintain order at the concert. Nice fellows to have around as a security force. Remember Altamont?

A leaden sky spat rain as Waylon Jennings and his band took their turn onstage. Jennings is one of the outlaw kings of country music, duly anointed by the Nashville powers that be. The cut of Jennings’ beard gives him a rather villainous look, and his predilection for black leather attire enhances the outlaw mystique, but his routine predates the latest fancy of the music industry flacks. Jennings is an old rock-a-billy, the bass player for Buddy Holly’s Crickets, and nothing about his music is new. One of the sad facts of American culture is that if a performer hopes to support himself with his music, more than likely he will lead a subterranean, barroom existence. Few American bars are clean well-lighted places. Redneck drunks have bounced Elvis Presley’s head off the concrete a time or two. Holly used to carry a gun because he was afraid the blacks were out to get him. Jennings’ music grew out of that environment. Nowadays he writes songs of deference to Bob Wills and Hank Williams, and his commitment to country music is no doubt very real, but onstage he remains the aging, hard-luck rock-a-billy: raw, suggestive, handling the neck of his guitar like the phallic prop it is.

Each of Jennings’ songs prompted a roar of appreciation from the crowd, but the loudest ovation came when Nelson appeared alongside to harmonize (if harmony is the word for the impossible mix of those rough-hewn voices) the lines of “Good Hearted Woman.” The sun was down by then, and Nelson was the next act onstage. As is to atone for his much-publicized non-performance at the Gonzales picnic, Nelson worked hard for the crowd at the Outlaw Concert. The same tight nonstop medley kept on and on for more than an hour: a working pace that would exhaust most hard-hat laborers. Willie Nelson is a splendid performer. Flashing that grin, shooting looks of direction to his sidemen, singing songs about the Bible while a plague of insects swarmed in the orange light, Nelson seemed almost angelic as he stepped to the rim of the ten-foot stage. Not too long ago you didn’t have to crane your neck that much to admire Nelson’s stage manner. If you were standing at the foot of the stage in the roadhouses he played in Round Rock and Helotes, you

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