The Outlaw country movement was an era-defining subgenre of country music in the 1970s and early part of the 1980s, the very music my Dad raised me on. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings yearned to have autonomy over their music and careers. That freedom came in the form of being able to choose their own music, studio musicians and producers. Along with this new found freedom, came an entire movement that shook up corporate country and became the defining sound of the time, for a time.
Country music lovers and artists alike were the beneficiaries of Willie and Waylon’s progressive push in the industry. If you aren’t a music historian, you may just think of Outlaw country as the album “Wanted! The Outlaws” released by RCA Records in 1976 featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Coulter and Tompall Glaser. This album was a commercial push for the movement and was the first country album to be certified platinum having sold over one million copies. While Waylon’s 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes” and 1974 album, “This Time” could be considered the first albums in the movement, they were, at a minimum, crucial in laying the ground for “Wanted! The Outlaws” and the movement as a whole. But, it probably took Willie Nelson’s courage to leave RCA Records to gain his artistic freedom to really get the movement going. There is a reason Outlaw country is so deeply rooted in Austin, Texas, and its spirit animal is the armadillo.
Other artist poured in, such as Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker and Steve Earl, and each brought new elements to the sound, but stayed true to its ethos. A more in depth look at the movement will be written another day by yours truly, but until then, here is what I got us into with AI.
In the spirit of the Outlaw movement and the singers and songwriters that we still cherish today, I had a not-so-original idea at this point in 2023, and decided to ask artificial intelligence (AI), specifically ChatGPT, to write not one, but two new songs in the same session. By the way, just as a salute and moment of awe, I will remind anyone reading this that Willie Nelson is still trailblazing at 90 years old!
First, I wanted a new song that AI thinks could be written by Willie Nelson. Would it produce another, On The Road Again? Then, I wanted to see what it would create as a song written by The Man In Black, Johnny Cash. I am going to post them right there without writing another word. Make your own observations, and then I will give my thoughts below. Please note, there are no song titles generated by the AI to go with the lyrics. So, judging by the chorus of each, I named them.
(Verse 1) Sittin’ on my porch, strummin’ my old guitar,
Watchin’ the sun sink behind the hills afar.
Life’s been a journey, like a winding stream,
Gatherin’ moments, like stars in a dream.
(Chorus) Rollin’ down the road, smilin’ at the sky,
Each note I sing, a piece of the why.
Through the highs and lows, like an old friend,
I’ll keep playin’ my song, till the very end.
(Verse 2) Seen love come and go, like the changing tides,
In the laughter and tears, where the heart abides.
Friends turned to family, and family to gold,
In the stories of my songs, their stories are told.
(Bridge) Life’s been like a melody, sweet and slow,
Each verse a memory, each chorus a glow.
With my worn-out guitar and my silver hair,
I’ll keep strummin’ along, without a care.
(Verse 3) So here’s to the moments, the ones that remain,
In the echo of a song, in the sound of rain.
With a twinkle in my eye and a heart so free,
I’ll keep singin’ my truth, just bein’ me.
(Outro) So let the chords ring out, let the music flow,
In the rhythm of my life, I’ll continue to grow.
With every strum, with every line I pen,
I’ll be the troubadour of my own story again.
(Verse 1) In the heart of the desert, where the sun burns the sand,
A lone rider’s journey through a barren land.
With a guitar on his back and stories in his soul,
He’s the Man in Black, and his tales unfold.
(Pre-Chorus) He’s seen the highs and the lows of life,
Faced demons and angels in the dead of night.
His voice like thunder, his strumming like rain,
He’s walked through fire and he’s felt the pain.
(Chorus) Oh, the Ballad of the Wandering Soul,
A troubadour’s life, a story untold.
He sings of love, of loss, and grace,
The wrinkles on his face, each one a trace.
(Verse 2) From juke joints to honky-tonks, he’s played ’em all,
Shared the stage with legends, stood mighty and tall.
His fingers on the strings, a dance of fate,
As he weaves his life’s tapestry, early to late.
(Pre-Chorus) He’s sung for the prisoners, the broken, the lost,
A voice for the silenced, a bridge ‘cross the frost.
Through darkness and light, he’s found his way,
A guitar and a voice, come what may.
(Bridge) Through valleys of despair, and mountains of pride,
He’s walked those roads with no place to hide.
But in every note, in each heartfelt line,
A piece of his soul forever shines.
(Verse 3) Now the years have rolled on, like a river’s flow,
But that voice and guitar, they’ll never grow old.
Though he’s gone from this world, his spirit remains,
In the chords he strummed and the stories he explained.
(Pre-Chorus) He’s joined the stars in the midnight sky,
A troubadour’s legacy, soaring high.
With a voice that carries through time and space,
He still sings of redemption, love’s embrace.
(Outro) So let the guitar strings ring, let the lyrics be told,
The Ballad of the Wandering Soul, forever bold.
In the heart of his music, his memory stays,
Johnny Cash’s spirit, in each song it lays.
Well, what do you think? I am going to have to put my English class hat back on to see if I can compare and contrast these two creations. I am also desperately hoping that I have not committed technological blasphemy.
Right away, you will notice the structure is almost the same. I am not a songwriter, but can see this instantly. There are 3 verses, a chorus, a bridge and an outro. The Cash song adds two versions of a “pre-chorus.”
Lyrically, they are also similar in may ways, even using some of the same words, such as “troubadour.” Both songs reflect the lives of older, experienced musicians recounting their lives in late career, or in Cash’s case, a tribute song. I would argue the AI tried to write in the style, or maybe in the essence of these artists based on the information the model has been trained on. The AI captured the spirit of these men with big, soaring images, details and, dare I say, portraits of “Outlaws” and cowboys, against big skies, rugged landscapes, surviving and writing of love. It might not have captured each artist’s own writing style.
In a contrast, AI wrote the Willie Nelson song in the first person and the Johnny Cash song in the third person. What’s important to note about this is that Willie is still alive, and Johnny Cash left us in 2003. The AI took this into consideration when generating the lyrics. It knew a new Johnny Cash song would have to be sung in tribute by someone else. AI, you are very clever.
The question remains, would either Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash have written these particular songs. I am going to say no. Both feel like a historian trying to put a life to song, and seem inorganic. AI is good, but art requires human emotion and experience to be art. Maybe one day it will get there. Willie, if you see this, you are free to give your song a go if you like.
What are your thoughts?
Written by: Nick Rainey