Melting Pot Music

By Lydia Baxter

It sounded like heartbreak, but with a rock & roll twist and a flair for the soulful.

Featuring the sounds of hard knock living and home-style storytelling, FST’s rousing new musical revue, Outlaws and Angels, captures an American spirit with themes of freedom, faith, and family.

From country’s classics like Hank Williams and “Outlaws” like Willie Nelson, to contemporaries like Miranda Lambert, Outlaws and Angels showcases great songs and great storytelling.

The Cabaret’s four lively cast members take the audience on a journey through light-hearted tales of cowboys and through the wonderful (and painful) sides of love. They’ll share some quirky anecdotes behind some of country’s most beloved songs, and even make you question what some artists were thinking. Like, what made Johnny Cash think “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” would make a good song title?

You may already know that singers like Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, and Kitty Wells put Nashville on the map in the 1950s. Today, Nashville is home to The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and is still considered a mecca for all-things country. But did you know Nashville is not the birthplace of the genre, itself?

Three hundred miles away in the hills of Bristol, Tennessee, the first pioneers of country picked up their instruments as early as the 1700s. These Appalachian settlers brought with them old ballads and folk songs of their native motherlands of the British Isles. They then incorporated rhythmic influences introduced by African Americans along with the banjo, which evolved from the African instrument, the banjar. The fiddle or violin – of European origin – was also later added.

This new sound was a fusion of musical cultures with roots from around the world. Country music emerged as an all-new genre — one that was uniquely American. It was true melting pot music.

But the evolution wasn’t over.

In the 1960s, a whole new branch of country music emerged: Outlaw Country. Feeling controlled and creatively stunted by over-reaching record labels, artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson divorced themselves from the Nashville sound, obtained their own recording rights, grew out their hair, and played their music their way. This inspired several other musicians, like Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, to follow in their footsteps and push the genre’s boundaries. Cash’s 1964 album, Bitter Tears, featured spoken word and discussed social issues the mainstream media avoided.

“My favorite artist from the song list? It’s got to be Johnny Cash,” said cast member Joe Casey. “I’ve portrayed him many times now so I, of course, feel a kindred spirit in him – musically, spiritually, as a writer, in his humanity and gentleness. And the rebellion of walking his own path.”

And don’t forget about the angels — outlaw country wasn’t entirely a boys’ club. Female artists of the time, like Jessi Colter and June Carter Cash, released music that captured the genre’s distinctive sound and independent spirit. June Carter Cash wrote “Ring of Fire” about falling in love with Johnny Cash. Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” tells of a girl who feels that her life is rich, despite the fact that her family is poor, because her mother has made her a coat full of love and comfort.

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Rosie Webber and Madalyn McHugh in FST’s Outlaws and Angels. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Regardless of gender, outlaw country artists wrote about similar themes – like the excitement of adventure and wanting a better life – but in different ways. No matter what they were singing about, they were telling their own stories the way they wanted to.

“It feels good to stand on a stage and tell your story to people – to feel heard,” said Rosie Webber, one cast member of Outlaws and Angels. “And even better when you get to do it singing some of the most iconic outlaw country music to ever grace the airwaves.”

But for Webber, a self-proclaimed “Southern Belle from Alabama,” this production means something more. “Music has always been such a gift in my life — something I can use to make others feel good. If our show brings joy to someone, or touches someone, then we’ve done our job… and there’s no better feeling.”

Outlaws and Angels plays in FST’s Goldstein Cabaret beginning November 20. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.