As the 1970s dawned in Nashville, the corridors of country music power felt their hold start to weaken — shaken by a new kind of music called “outlaw country,” and a new kind of singer who sang it.
Names like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson roared to the tops of the charts with a back-to-basics country that shunned the “countrypolitan” style known as the “Nashville Sound.”
Revisiting and continuing that momentum is musical theater veteran Gayden Wren, who will perform “Tennessee Walt’s Riding with the Outlaws,” a new show that will look at the Outlaw Country movement with a fresh eye on Saturday, April 6, at 1 p.m. at the East Hampton Library, located at 159 Main Street.
“People don’t think of the Hamptons as a country area,” the singer said, “but I’ve played shows in Florida, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas, not to mention all over Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester, and I’ve rarely found an audience more knowledgeable, curious and interested in learning new things. I come a long way for these shows — I live in Queens — but I’m happy to do it. East Hampton is a show I look forward to each year, and it’s a great place to debut a new show.”
“Tennessee Walt’s Riding with the Outlaws” is a one-man concert featuring plenty of songs by Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson, but also classics and underappreciated rarities from lesser-known outlaws, such as David Allan Coe, Tompall Glaser and Billy Joe Shaver — plus borderline-outlaw greats like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, all arranged by Wren for voice and piano.
“People think of the outlaw movement as country’s version of the counterculture, and I get that,” he said. “They dressed like rock stars, sometimes, and they messed around with drugs. If you really look at the music, though, the outlaw movement was more of a conservative backlash against the ‘Nashville Sound,’ a slick, pop-oriented style that wasn’t very country at all. The outlaws wanted to get back to the heart of classic country — singers and songs, stories about country life played on country instruments — and that’s what they did.
“People who come to hear ‘Riding with the Outlaws’ will learn some things they weren’t expecting to learn,” he continued. “These were guys from the ’30s who had grown up with Rodgers and Acuff and Williams, and their heyday in the 1970s is in some respects the last hurrah for the country music they’d heard and loved growing up. When the outlaw movement ran out of steam, in a certain sense real country ran down with it.”
As for his own performance, Wren noted it will be a far cry from what people think of as “country music.”
“It’s voice and piano, not fiddles and steel guitars, and I won’t be yodeling,” he said. “And this isn’t the country of Garth Brooks or Shania Twain. It’s the older, purer country music that inspired those people and everybody from Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr. This show is about the roots of 20th-century American music, not to mention about hearing some of the most brilliant, funny, moving and musically powerful songs ever written.”
Admission is free. For more information, call (631) 324-0222 or visit easthamptonlibrary.org.