This day in Willie Nelson history: ‘Wanted: the Outlaws’ certified gold (March 30, 1976)

On March 30, 1976, the collaborative album “Wanted: The Outlaws”–featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessie Colter– is certified gold.

As Willie Nelson’s career gathered momentum and he began getting a national audience, Waylon Jennings and his producer/cohort Tompall Glaser noticed.  Waylon was well on the way to success but so far he had experienced nothing approaching the magnitude of Willie’s accomplishments.

Nashville recording executives were quick to realize that Willie had indeed tapped into something big with this new, younger audience he had discovered.  RCA vice-president Jerry Bradley was the first to hit upon a concept for an LP that might allow Waylon to penetrate this new market.  Why not put together an album that would combine the talents of these “outlaws” — as they had come to be known for thier casual lifestyles and their insistence on working outside the traditional political system of the country music industry.

“Waylon was booking out as the Outlaws, he and Tompall and Jessi and Willie occasionally,” Bradley recalled to Martha Hume, “and Willie had just had a hit [“Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”], and Jessi had just had a hit [“I’m not Lisa”], and Waylon had been having all kinds of hits, and none really as big as Willie or Jessi.  So I told Waylon I thought we ought to do this Outlaws package and make his picture a little bigger and boost his image a little bit.   He said, “Well, I wish you’d use Tompall’, I said, ‘Fine, if we can work things out with MGM [Tompall Glaser’s record label at the time], I’ll be glad to use Tompall.’”

Eight of the eleven tracks on the 1976 Wanted:  The Outlaws LP were previously released material.  Included on the album were two songs by Waylon, two by Willie, two by Jessi, one duet with Waylon and Jessi (a moving version of “Suspicous Minds”), and two duets with Willie and Waylon.

Most outstanding with the Outlaws LP is the ingenious packaging.  The front cover is designed like an old wild west, “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, and painted in sepia.  When “Good Hearted Woman” was released as the LP’s first single, it shot to the number one spot, and stayed there for weeks.  It sold phenomenally well; within a few months it had passed the million sales mark, became the first platinum country album and the biggest selling album in Nashville’s history.

On the strenth of the Outlaws LP, Waylon and Willie swept the 1976 Country Music Association Awards, winning Best Single (“Good Hearted Woman”), Best Album, and best Vocal Duo (“Good Hearted Woman”).  Waylon did not appear to pick up the awards but Willie showed up at the normally stodgy, tuxedoed affair, all smiles, and bounded on to the stage to accept their trophies in his customary sneakers, head band, and flannel shirt.

After the Outlaws LP, things were never quite the same for Waylon and Willie.  They became — as one writer put it – the Redford and Newman of country music.  Everyone wanted to know what they ate for breakfast, who they slept with, and their opinions on national politics.  Their triumphant success with the Outlaws marked their final triumph over the Nashville star-system that had ignored them for so long. “Those guys [the record executives] didnt’ know that audience was there,” [Rolling Stone].  “That’s what happens when you sit behind a desk a lot.  You don’t get out there and see what people are paying money to see.  I been playing beer joints all my life.  I know what those people like to hear.”

“I think people in Nashville know less about what country is than anybody,” Jennings told John Rockwell of the New York Times.  “They limit themselves… If we fought for anything, it was the right to be ourselves and not to be typecast.”

The full story in words and pictures of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson
by Bob Allen

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