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The epic story of The Outlaws, and why southern rock still matters

The Outlaws
The Outlaws performing in Los Angeles, California, February 1980 (Image credit: Michael Putland / Getty Images)

"There’s a highway outside our hotel, there’s fresh horses and we’re ready to ride/There’ll be another showdown around sunset, and we’ll be comin’ back dead or alive."

So begins Southern Rock Will Never Die, the anthemic opening track from Dixie Highway, the eleventh studio album from the Outlaws. That song recycles most clichés propagated by the titular genre – think chain-smoking, card games and guitar gunfights; only hard liquor, loose women and Stetsons are omitted. As far as mission statements go, this one’s pretty hard to beat. 

From a band led by Henry Paul, the guitarist, singer and songwriter who has put 47 years of his life into the Outlaws, it seems only good and proper that such a song would name-check the fallen great and good of southern rock – including Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gregg and Duane Allman and Berry Oakley of the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band’s Toy and Tommy Caldwell, ‘Taz’ DiGregorio and Tommy ‘TC’ Crain from the Charlie Daniels Band and, closer to home, Billy Jones, Frank O’Keefe and Hughie Thomasson, all three of whom were co-founders of Paul’s own group. 

“I wrote Southern Rock Will Never Die as reminder that the genre will always be bigger than the personalities that helped to create it,” Paul explains. 

If a cynic were to accuse Paul of opportunism, how would he respond? 

“Look,” he fires right back. “These were people I knew personally; we shared stages and time together on the bus. I’ve been to their funerals and laid them to rest. There was a mutual respect and appreciation. That’s where I drew my inspiration.” 

Contemporaries have passed on, retired or simply faded away, but although Henry Paul turns 71 in August the last remaining original member of the Outlaws remains fiercely committed to keeping southern rock alive. 

“I hope that Dixie Highway reinforces the notion that the Outlaws still matter, and that southern rock will always matter,” he says. “It’s a message we’re proud to bring into the twenty-first century.” 

As if to underline this statement, the final verse of Southern Rock Will Never Die references songs by the Charlie Daniels Band and those good ol’ Allmans: ‘You might say that this was long ago, and time has passed us by/But the devil’s still down in Georgia, and I still got ramblin’ on my mind.’

Henry Paul joined the Outlaws in 1971 when they were reborn from an earlier incarnation. The band had been formed by Hughie Thomasson and various others including drummer David Dix in Florida four years earlier with the name the Four Letter Words. 

As the Outlaws (but without Paul) they recorded an album, which was then mothballed due to a dispute with the producer. Things looked pretty bleak when the exact same thing happened again following a second trip to the studio. Having started out as a fairly straightforward rock band, the arrival in 1970 of guitarist/pianist Dave Graham leaned the group in the direction of the growing country rock and southern music scene. 

The further additions of Henry Paul, bassist Frank O’Keefe and drummer Monte Yoho ratcheted the Outlaws up to an entire new level. Very soon people were talking about The Florida Guitar Army – Thomasson, Paul and Billy Jones. 

“The story of the Outlaws is a pretty familiar one,” Paul begins, in a leisurely paced voice that’s full of warmth. He’s calling from a plot of land recently bought and built upon in Tennessee. “Somewhere along the way, most bands [of note] get lucky. For dreams to come true, hard work and persistence will only get you so far. The Outlaws came along in the boom that followed The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and America’s explosion of folk rock. We were in the right place at the right time, in the wake of the Allman Brothers and the Eagles and the limited success of Poco.”

Like the Eagles, whose frontline members all sang, Thomasson, Paul and Jones were all accomplished lead vocalists, and the blending of the trio’s voices in three- or four-part harmonies, as well as rotation of who was at the microphone, soon became a trademark. 

“Yeah, and that set us apart from most of the other bands. But what it really came down to was songs,” Paul states. “We not only had something to say, but also our own means of putting it out there. Compared to our contemporaries – for instance the Ronnie Van Zant approach to writing, which was simpler – our songs were rooted in a more poetic format.” 

The Outlaws’ earliest gigs around Tampa were with The Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

“Those were the four bands that we played with the most and really, really admired,” Paul says.

It was Skynyd’s Ronnie Van Zant who brought the Outlaws to the attention of their eventual home of Arista Records, forcing an executive to watch a support spot with Skynyrd in Columbus, Georgia in 1974. With typical bullishness, Van Zant collared label boss Clive Davis and told him: “If you don’t sign the Outlaws, then you’re the dumbest music person I’ve ever met – and I know that you’re not.” 

“Ronnie was candid and confident and having his own good fortune, so he operated from a position of strength,” Paul reasons. “To Clive, his opinion meant far more than simply some guy from the audience. That endorsement was pretty much priceless. It was our ticket out of the bars and on to the bigger stages.” 

After the Outlaws joined the roster at Arista, a self-titled debut followed in mid-75. Produced by Paul A Rothchild (who had worked with The Doors and Janis Joplin), its fusion of bluegrass, country and hard rock was an instant success, bringing them a gold disc and breaking into America’s Top 20 at the first attempt. 

This was largely due to the success of the single There Goes Another Love Song, which was written by Thomasson and drummer Yoho. The album’s sign-off epic, Green Grass And High Tides, had begun “as a four-minute ballad”, Paul remembers, although after the song grew and grew it would become perhaps the Outlaws’ most recognised number. Almost 10 minutes on record, High Tides closed all of their future shows in jammed-out guitar-duel form, doubling in length on the 1978 live album Bring It Back Alive

“That one became our big guitar rave-up,” Paul says with a chuckle. “It allowed us to blaze it up every night.” 

Despite the titular ‘grass’, the song was not an ode to the joys of marijuana; a sober(-ish) Hughie Thomasson had conceived it while at a beach cookout after imagining Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Duane Allman and Jim Morrison all arose from the grave to play a personal show for him, and naming it after High Tide And Green Grass, a Rolling Stones ‘best of’ album. The song’s status became such that fellow Floridians Molly Hatchet gave it a plug in their song Gator Country (‘The Outlaws down in Tampa town, yes, a mighty fine place to be/They got green grass and they got high tides and it sure looks good to me’). 

The following year’s Lady In Waiting album retained the connection to Rothchild and delivered more of the same. But without a hit single the album fared slightly less well than its predecessor, although it still made it into the Top 40.

Their third album, 1977’s Hurry Sundown, was co-produced by Bill Szymczyk, of Eagles fame. It saw the Outlaws, now with new bass player Harvey Dalton Arnold, add a more emphatic country twist to their sound, with Thomasson layering pedal steel guitar on to So Afraid.

And yet despite the quality of Heavenly Blues, Holiday, Cold And Lonesome and the title song, the album didn’t even make the Top 50, stalling just outside. Then Henry Paul decided to follow Frank O’Keefe out the door, with a view to carving his own path.

“Looking back, Frank’s leaving the band and the breaking up of the original Outlaws was a big deal to everyone involved – maybe more than we realised that the time,” he explains. “It was a difficult set of circumstances for everybody.”

While the guitarist formed The Henry Paul Band, signed to Atlantic Records and released a string of records that began with Grey Ghost in 1979, the Outlaws brought in replacement Freddie Salem for their 1978 album Playin’ To Win, overseen by future  Def Leppard and AC/DC producer Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, which kept their name alive by ramping up the southern elements of their sound. 

Although they brought in Allman Brothers associate Johnny Sandlin to produce album number five, In The Eye Of The Storm, line-up changes and artistic indecision led to a gradual watering down of the elements that had made them successful. 

Entering the 1980s, Ghost Riders, which saw them wave goodbye to Billy Jones, another component of The Florida Guitar Army, returned the group to the Top 30 for the final time and is regarded as a last statement of the band’s original style. 

For 1982’s Los Hombres Malo, which included songs written by Jim Peterik of Survivor and Sammy Hagar, Thomasson was a lonely constant, further away from home than ever. 

A year later, Henry Paul returned, although it took the new-look Outlaws until September ’86 to release Soldiers Of Fortune, an album that intended to revive the sound fans wanted yet bore the polished thumbprint of Pasha Records boss and executive producer Spencer Proffer (Quiet Riot), who swamped things in electronic drums and synthesisers.

Paul was out of the band again by 1994, when a Thomasson-led incarnation released Diablo Canyon, although in much more recent times he was in control for 2012’s It’s About Pride, a little-known record that he feels very much passes muster. 

“Yeah, of course the Outlaws lost their way after the first three records, which were the band’s defining work,” Paul acknowledges. “After I left they had another moment with Ghost Riders, and in my opinion there were still some good songs along the way. But also in my opinion, with what the band did later they clearly wandered into different areas that just were not focused. 

“There were reasons for that,” he continues. “When you’re in a band and members are leaving, it can be very hard. the Outlaws were not alone; Johnny Cash created most of his most exceptional music as a young man. Bob Dylan is another good example. By the time you get to his later records, the guy that created Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde is missing.” 

Just when Thomasson accepted an offer to join Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1996, Henry Paul was enjoying success of his own with the country band BlackHawk. For a while the Outlaws, who according to Henry had “hit an all-time low in terms of popularity”, faded away, until 2005 when Thomasson, Paul, Yoho and David Dix regrouped once again, using members of BlackHawk to fill in the gaps. 

Thomasson died of a heart attack two years afterwards, but Henry Paul keeps things moving forwards. He’s completely comfortable with that, having overturned a lawsuit from Hughie’s widow that attempted to prevent him doing so.

 “I hated being dragged down that road, so let me say one thing about the whole situation,” he responds, choosing his words with caution. “I’m an original member of this band. I’m a part of its musical personality, and I’m a creator. I’ve shown myself to be caring towards the brand. 

"Why would I allow myself to be controlled by somebody who’s never played a guitar, entertained an audience or made a record? I felt an obligation to fight for what I felt was right for me and my bandmates. Since we won the case, I’ve worked really hard to maintain the integrity of the group.”

Dixie Highway is the first Outlaws record in eight years. From its gruffly-voiced, triple-guitar-laced title track to the joyously jaunty Over Night To Athens, and a lighter finale of Macon Memories, it’s a fresh, assured and comforting record that suggests the future of southern rock is in good hands – certainly in the short term. 

The Allman Brothers Band are now gone, Skynyrd are in the process of bowing out, Charlie Daniels is dead, the current Blackfoot have no original members and neither do Molly Hatchet. Of the genre’s progenitors, the Outlaws, along the Marshall Tucker Band, will soon be the last men standing. 

“That fact is not lost upon me,” he sighs. “I have so much love and affection for what those bands you just mentioned were able to do. I was friends with them all – competitive friends. It’s not easy to go out there and entertain audiences of significant size night after night, year after year. And with regard to the Outlaws, while others may disagree, I believe that we distinguish ourselves by continuing with what many, many people have kinda stopped doing.” 

When Classic Rock brings up a the subject of whole new generation of potential torch carriers, such as Black Stone Cherry, the Allman Betts Band and Band Of Horses, Paul admits to being largely unaware of those names, although he says, with a smirk: “I have seen The Cadillac Three, and to be quite honest they reminded me of myself when I was their age – you know, going on stage with a beer and a cigarette, smoking pot. They’re young, enthusiastic and just starting out. I found that quite endearing. I’m also aware of that band from Georgia… what’s their name… Blackberry Smoke. I like them, too.” 

In the United States, these days casinos, county fairs and mid-sized theatres are the Outlaws’ second home. Until the intervention of COVID-19 the band were set to have revisited many of their usual haunts in promotion of Dixie Highway. 

“Those places feel very natural to us,” Paul enthuses. “The Outlaws are exactly where they belong. We’re not arena headliners like Lynyrd Skynyrd, we’re more of a cult band.” 

However, even as septuagenarians, Paul believes firmly that the group’s current performances match up with those of the past. 

“There’s only one way to play an Outlaws show, and that doesn’t involve sitting cross-legged,” he says with a laugh. “This isn’t a singer-songwriter experience, it’s a very physical demonstration of talent and commitment. It’s quite a ferocious thing. I’m seventy years old, but the Outlaws still play hard – I believe as hard as we did in 1975. We’re just not as inebriated or stoned.” 

Not that the band’s fans in the UK would really know. In 1976 the Outlaws played a handful of outdoor dates in Britain alongside The Who on their Put The Boot In mini-tour, but after that it was a full decade before their Reading Festival spot, after which they never returned. 

“Those two opportunities were our real chances of establishing a foothold in Europe,” Paul relates sadly. “I was all in favour of rolling up our sleeves and giving things a go, but I’m sorry to say that others in the band expressed indifference towards that idea. It’s always hard to get a second bite at the cherry with fans that have either moved on or just didn’t care anyway. I’ve asked repeatedly that we include the UK and Europe in our tours, because showing this band off is something I’d love to do, but so far it just doesn’t happen.” 

Henry Paul believes that he still has another Outlaws album left in him, and at the time we spoke a double-live acoustic record from BlackHawk was also being lined up for this summer. 

“I feel lucky to still be alive and to have enjoyed my career,” he says with a smile. “And especially now that I have a leadership role in the band once again, that brings a real sense of accomplishment. The Outlaws borrowed heavily from the Eagles, who themselves had borrowed heavily from Poco, and we always tried to be honest with ourselves about our influences. 

“You know, the original band never fully realised its potential or capitalised upon what we started,” he concludes, on a note of optimism. “To use a cliché, maybe there’s still hope that the Outlaws can now bring an honourable and respectful conclusion to what we started doing right at the beginning."

Dixie Highway is out now