“Wanted: The Outlaws” hit shelves on January 12, 1976. The album1985 went double platinum on this day in 1985. The album featured previously-released songs from Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser. The outlaw attitude and imagery lent cohesion to the compilation album. While it was not the first outlaw country album, it was one of the most important.
To really understand the importance of the album, you have to understand the heart of the outlaw country movement. It wasn’t just about making songs about living like an outlaw. Sure, there are some heavy counterculture elements to some of the songs but that isn’t the real focus. The beating heart of outlaw country is creative freedom.
In his autobiography, Waylon Jennings said, “For us, ‘outlaw’ meant standing up for your rights, your own way of doing things. It felt like a different music, and ‘outlaw’ was as good a description as any.”
Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson: Original Outlaws
For years, artists like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were under the thumbs of their record labels. The suits had more control over what the artists released than the artists. Some musicians were fine toe the line while others weren’t. The outlaw movement was about breaking away from the prescribed sound of Nashville and doing your own thing.
A few years before “Wanted: The Outlaws” came out, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson started taking control of their music. Tired of the strict control of RCA Nashville, Willie Nelson went to Atlantic Records. There he released back-to-back hit albums. With Nelson’s star on the rise, RCA didn’t want Waylon to walk away as well. So, they gave him creative control over his recordings. The result of this control was 1973’s “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the first outlaw country album.
Willie Nelson released “Red Headed Stranger” in 1975. It was a hit and drew eyes and ears from around the country to the outlaw country movement.
“Wanted: The Outlaws” Capitalized on Outlaw Image
“Red Headed Stranger” was selling like hotcakes. Jessi Colter also had an album out at the same time that was selling really well. RCA still had Waylon Jennings and the rights to several older songs from Nelson and Colter. They wanted to get in on some of that outlaw country money, so they approached Jennings about cutting a compilation album. He agreed to it under the condition that a couple of Tompall Glaser’s songs be added to the mix as well.
Once they assembled the tracklist, the folks at RCA went to work on marketing the album. In the end, they came up with the iconic old-west style album cover. They knew it would be eye-catching. It distilled the word “outlaw” into an instantly recognizable design. Their marketing campaign was set.
The album produced two singles. “Suspicious Minds” which peaked at number two on the country chart. “Good Hearted Woman” topped the chart. Both tracks featured Waylon Jennings.
The artwork, singles, and name recognition of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson drove the sales of “Wanted: The Outlaws.” it was a hit. The album went to number one on the country album chart and number 10 on the Hot 100 chart.
Within its first year, the album sold a million copies, making it the first country album to be certified platinum. A few days over nine years after its initial release, the album was certified double platinum.
The album helped to codify the outlaw country sound. At the same time, it introduced the subgenre and its artists to a whole new audience.