Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard Prove That Country Doesn’t Need A New Formula

Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson: Such outlaws they don't need to play by their own rules
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson: Such outlaws they don't need to play by their own rules
Christopher Durst

The universe of country music has always been made up of completely different planets. The music made in Nashville has always determined the prevailing sound, but artists across the country have always been doing their own thing. Nowhere is that more true than in Texas. The country music here has always been served with a shot of outlaw rebellion, thanks in large part to the industry’s refusal to bring the red dirt sound into the mainstream. Well, that and Willie Nelson.

As the most iconic Texan in country music, Willie Nelson’s sound has always been influenced with local twang. Throughout his seemingly eternal career, Nelson has been able to attract an audience far beyond the rest of country’s usual suspects. Everyone loves Nelson because he’s Willie-fucking-Nelson, and when he’s teamed up with his old buddy Merle Haggard, you know the results are always going to be impressive.

Yesterday, Django & Jimmie, Haggard and Nelson’s recently released album of new songs and covers, shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album Charts on the day of its release, and No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 200. The first single, “It’s All Going to Pot,” an obvious ode to Nelson’s favorite plant, the current state of country music and the world at large, was a viral video success, racking up more than a million views on YouTube since its release in April. At this point, it’s pretty clear that Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard aren’t just country legends; they’re the definition of cross-over success.

And yet, unlike Taylor Swift and Shania Twain and all of the other artists who have had a great deal of success with pop audiences, Django & Jimmie sounds like actual country music. For the record executives that fear that too much twang and authenticity would drive younger fans away from the genre, the success of this album proves that country artists, especially those in Texas, don’t have to change their formula. They just need to make damn good country music.

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The release of Django & Jimmie comes at an interesting time for many artists in Texas. While Adam Hood and Wade Bowen toil away in the honky-tonks and enjoy regional success, less-talented artists like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean sell out arenas and are international superstars. As a result, there’s a certain slicking-up, a move to the middle, that is happening in Texas country music. And who could blame them? There is money to be made and no one wants to play to six drunk people at a bar for their entire career.

But for these artists, long-term, mainstream success rarely comes. Even though many of Texas’ major artists, like Randy Rogers Band and Josh Abbott Band, are signed to major Nashville labels like Mercury and Atlantic, their music always performs better on the Texas Country charts than the Billboard, a fact that Rogers parodied on “I’ve Got Standards,” from his collaboration with Wade Bowen earlier this year. After 11 weeks, that collaboration, Hold My Beer Vol. 1, sits at No. 4 on the Texas Country chart. It never cracked the top 50 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.

Arguably, that success doesn’t come because these artists change their sound to make it more appealing for Nashville. Instead of being stubborn about their sound, much like Nelson was when he fled Nashville for Bakersfield, they record a slicked-up song that will fit in nicely with Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan. Adam Hood’s latest release, “Way Too Long,” is his most radio-friendly ever, and it has barely moved the needle on mainstream radio. Josh Abbott’s album of party tunes from 2014 has still yet to promote him to bro-country royalty, even if the sound is a perfect fit. As they stray away from their sound, the music inevitably suffers.

When these artists do maintain their authenticity, though, success seems to follow. Aaron Watson, Texas country’s straight-edge cowboy, shot to the top of the country charts with The Underdog, selling more than 25,000 copies in the first week of the album’s release without any major label support or radio airplay. According to Rolling Stone Country, the album’s sales outpaced that week’s runner up, mainstream country it-boy Sam Hunt’s first album, by more than 10,000 units.

The same could be said for Django & Jimmie. Nelson and Haggard could be out there doing country’s version of The Rolling Stones, playing 50 year old songs to sold-out audiences for $200 a ticket. Instead, they’re continuing to make great country music to break up those performances of “You Were Always on My Mind” and “Okie From Muskogee.” If any of these younger artists ever hope to be in that position, they’ve got to stick to their sound.

There are many lessons in Django & Jimmie, but musicians would be wise to listen to the sound, the aesthetic, and not the lyrics. If there were ever a time for Texas country artists to listen to their founding fathers, it would be now. Texas and traditional country artists are making music that people clearly enjoy, and they shouldn’t screw it all up in order to make a few short-term bucks or chart one single hit on the Billboard

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