On May 25th the Country Music Hall Of Fame in Nashville Tennessee opened their brand new feature exhibit entitled “Outlaws and Armadillos: Country’s Roaring 70s” and I made the trip down to check it out. The following is an in-depth look at the things I saw there, and why it’s all as relevant today as it was during it’s own time.
I want to come right out of the gate and say this: Outlaws and Armadillos is a simply wonderful, stunning exhibit. It does justice to the Outlaw movement that brought so much great music. It tells the basic story of the movement, using an absolutely stunning array of art, artifacts, and interviews. I want to clarify that when I say the “basic story” I don’t mean that in a bad way. Obviously a story with that many layers is a hard one to tell, but this exhibit gives you all of the necessary details, and gives them to you in a way that encourages you to follow up and learn more about the aspects that you might not have known much about before. It educates you, and leaves you wanting even more education. It provokes your thoughts and stirs your emotions in a particularly powerful way that leaves you wanting to dedicate yourself to it even more
The exhibit begins telling the story in a chronological sense. Images and sounds of young Waylon and Willie (As well as others) paint a picture of discord with the way things were being done in their early careers. The exhibit continues building the story, and laying the foundation for the whole movement. All along the way art accompanies the journey. Showbills and paintings tell the story of the music and movement growing into something more. You turn a corner, and the whole exhibit opens up, mimicking the explosion of the Outlaw movement. What seemed like it might have been a linear journey opens up, allowing you the freedom to do your own thing, go see what you want.
What You’ll See
The collection of memorabilia included in the exhibit is exquisite. Countless items from the likes of Waylon, Willie, Bobby Bare, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, and the Armadillo World Headquarters among many others line the cases of the exhibit. The walls are full of art and pictures, newspaper and magazine articles. There are several video screens about. One corner features a listening area for some incredible performances from the era from the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Joe Ely, Willie Nelson. Leon Russell, Asleep At The Wheel, and many, many others. Over a half hour of incredible music performances will keep you dying to see what’s next.
The exhibit tells the tale of the Armadillo World Headquarters, where the Outlaw movement really took off. Where the hippies came to the show to sit down front with their bag of pot, smoking, enjoying the show, while the cowboys at the back of the room drank their beer, danced, and had a good time. How they all came to get along because of their shared appreciation of the music. Another listening corner shows a feature about the Armadillo World Headquarters. It’s founding, it’s rise. The role it played in the Outlaw movement. Armadillo memorabilia frequents the exhibit.
On screens throughout the exhibit are video presentations from some of the faces of the Outlaw movement. Telling their stories are Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, and Jessi Colter. A feature about the career of Waylon Jennings runs on one. Vintage footage and performances prominently featured.
The Art of Outlaws and Armadillos
One of the areas where the exhibit most excels is in it’s display of artwork. The showbills and posters from this particular era are incredible. The walls and columns throughout the exhibit are lined with them, and many other incredible works of art. An oil painting of a goofy Willie Nelson laying down to die in the street in front of Tootsies, Willie flying away from his burning home in Tennessee, and the phone call that created the Armadillo World Headquarters connection all line the walls. Various photos line the walls. Rare photos. Photos that I found myself surprised to have never seen before.
Why It’s Important Today
This exhibit drives a much deeper connection than just an intimate look back at one of the greatest eras in music history. It was masterfully designed and orchestrated, taking visitors on a journey back to a time that is really not so different than ours. The ideals and desires that spawned the Outlaw movement all those decades ago are still alive and well today, particularly in this corner of country music. Much is made of whether today’s current independent scene is a continuation of the Outlaw movement or not. Some identify with and embrace the term, others distance themselves from it, and some have even grown to despise it entirely. And while that is a hot button topic that may never die off, the fact still remains:
The Outlaws and Armadillos exhibit is a reminder of what the power of the music can do. What it can create. What it can inspire. Not just to our ears or emotions as fans, but to the music as a whole. What it can do culturally. The parallels between the Outlaw Movement and whatever you may call today’s movement are there.
You may have noticed a running theme with this exhibit and this website you’re currently reading. Years back when I started this venture it was named the Country Music Armadillo as an homage to the Armadillo World Headquarters. In fact, naming it the Armadillo was the final push it took to throw me over the edge. Knowing and understanding the importance that venue down in Austin, Texas held I chose the Armadillo because I hoped to have even just a little bit of the same kind of impact in the present.
The Outlaws and Armadillos exhibit is open at the Hall of Fame through 2021. I know Nashville can be a pretty expensive trip, but I urge everyone to make the trek to see this wonderful display. I spent between 3 and 4 hours taking it all in, and I still feel as if though maybe I rushed through it maybe a little more than I should have. I’ll definitely be making a return trip or two (or maybe even more) before it closes.
And maybe, just maybe, I will someday visit a similar exhibit about the movement taking place right here and now about how a group of artists who Nashville didn’t want around went out and did their own thing, and built a beautiful, wildly successful legacy in spite of that, just like the legends who came before them.