By Conrad L. Stinnett
The Outlaws have experienced many ups and downs in the band’s roughly 40-year career: lineup shifts, declining popularity, member deaths and extended hiatus. Despite those obstacles, the Southern rockers came together again with a renewed vigor. The result? The band’s first new studio album in two decades — “It’s About Pride.”
This is a far cry from where the band was in September 2007, with the unexpected death of co-founder and guitarist Hughie Thomasson. While the Outlaws had lost members in the past, including co-founders guitarist Billy Jones and bassist Frank O’Keefe, Thomasson was the band’s driving force. In addition to being a part of all Outlaw tours and albums, he had written several of the Outlaws’ hits, including “Hurry Sundown,” “There Goes Another Love Song” and “Green Grass and High Tides.”
While the band was a strong force in Southern Rock throughout the ’70s and ’80s, internal band dynamics and shifting popular music tastes led to a downturn in the band’s popularity in the ’90s. After the failure of 1994’s “Diablo Canyon” album, Thomasson disbanded the Outlaws and joined Lynyrd Skynyrd. Except for an abortive reunion attempt in 2000, the Outlaws would stay on ice for more than a decade. In 2005, Thomasson decided the time was right to bring the Outlaws back together. He amicably left Skynyrd, re-assembled the Outlaws and went out on tour, while working on a comeback album to revive the band as a contemporary music entity. Nicknamed “Mr. Outlaw” or “The Lone Outlaw” by fans, Thomasson was such an integral part of the band that his death seemed to signal the end of the Outlaws.
However, a new chapter in the history of the Outlaws was on the horizon. In January 2008, a new Outlaws lineup was announced to include singer-songwriter/guitarist Henry Paul and drummer-songwriter Monte Yoho, along with lead guitarist Billy Crain, co-lead guitarist Chris Anderson, keyboardist/vocalist Dave Robbins and bassist/vocalist Randy Threet.
Most of the band’s players had worked with the Outlaws in one incarnation or another, and the current lineup’s roots go deep. In 1972, Yoho and Paul were there at the beginning of Outlaws. A strong part of the Outlaws for the band’s first three albums (“The Outlaws,” “Lady in Waiting” and “Hurry Sundown”), Paul had come and gone from the band several times throughout its history, alternating his time in the Outlaws with his own Henry Paul band and Blackhawk. While Paul had experienced success with his other ventures, he was determined to do his part in reviving the Outlaws.
“I loved the band,” Paul said. “I really loved the people in the band and what we all had done in the past. I played a significant role in the early years of the band and thought, in order for it to successfully continue, that Monte and I would need to be involved. I really didn’t want the Outlaws to go away.”
While the current Outlaws went to work on the concert circuit, the band’s members realized that they had to do more than just go out and play their catalog. A complete comeback required new music. When not on the road, the band wrote and recorded new material over a four-year period. The result was “It’s About Pride,” an album that both hearkens back to the Outlaws’ classic early period, as well as demonstrates what the band is about in today’s world.
“I wanted to make an album that would sit on the shelf along with the first three and would fit in,” Paul said. “We wanted to make something that would come organically but also treated the band’s musical persona with respect."
While the band has been generally defined as “Southern rock,” the classic Outlaws music was a unique blend of rock, country and western, jazz and pop. The band was known for a blistering guitar attack (hence the nickname, “Florida Guitar Army”), tight vocal harmonies, strong melodies and solid songwriting.
“I think we all brought some different things to the table in those early days,” Paul said of the original band’s musical influences. “I wanted to be sure that was reflected in what we are doing today.”
A listen to “It’s About Pride” demonstrates the diversity of material. The opening track, “Tomorrow’s Another Night,” begins with the band’s trademark a cappella vocals, segueing into a triple guitar attack. “Hidin Out in Tennessee” provides a light-hearted look at life as an Outlaw, while the album’s title track is an introspective look at the early days of the band. “Nothin Main About Main Street” and “Trail of Tears” are rife with social commentary, while “Born to Be Bad” and “The Flame” showcase the band’s fun, playful side. The album closes with a new version of “So Long,” a Paul song that originally appeared on the first Henry Paul band album.
“We wanted to be sure the classic Outlaws elements were there and wanted to be sure we had good songs to showcase,” Paul said. “There wasn’t room for self-indulgence or filler. I think the whole album is very focused.”
While “It’s About Pride” is the first Outlaws studio album in 18 years, it is also the first Outlaws album without Thomasson. Paul acknowledges that the situation was somewhat strange.
“Hughie wasn’t there,” he said. “I had to approach it like I did the first Henry Paul band album. You have to kind of go with what you’ve got. Fortunately, Billy Crain and the others all had a good understanding of what the Outlaws were about and were able to convey that in the music.”
Like other Southern rock bands that have continued after losing key members, the Outlaws are moving forward while acknowledging the group’s past.
“I think you need to be respectful of the band’s history and what others have brought to the table, while continuing to make music today. The Outlaws were a pioneering Southern rock band, and we still have a lot of good music to make,” Paul said.
These days, the audiences that gather for that music have grown to include new fans who weren’t even born when the band’s debut was released. And they are embracing the new songs in the set.
“These are songs that we believe both our longtime fans and those who might not be familiar with us can all enjoy,” Paul said.
“It’s About Pride” is dedicated to the memory of Thomasson, Jones and O’Keefe. What remains uncertain is whether the album “Once An Outlaw” — the last completed by the Thomasson-led Outlaws lineup prior to his death — will ever be released.
The Outlaws plan to hit the road again in 2013; be sure to check the band’s website at www.outlawsmusic.com for the latest dates, cities and venues.