Outlaw country is a tricky line to walk, if you’ll forgive the Johnny Cash pun. Being a true outlaw musician does require a certain amount of fucking up your life, which is generally not conducive to a successful career in anything. But we give musicians a pass—perhaps because they live a romanticized version of lives we wish we were brave enough to live—and I guess that’s why there’s a certain amount of reverent “well, shit” hat-tipping going on surrounding the death of Randy Howard this week.
ICYMI: Randy Howard, who wrote the crass-but-spot-on good ol’ boy anthem “All American Redneck,” was shot and killed by an unlicensed bounty hunter in his Lynchburg, Tennessee cabin on Tuesday.
Howard was due to appear in court on a litany of complaints: DUI, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of a firearm while intoxicated and driving on a revoked license. His neighbor was going to give him a ride—but when the day arrived, Howard refused to go.
“He said he wasn’t going back to jail,” neighbor Terry Dotson said. “That’s what he told me.”
Tuesday night, bounty hunter Jackie Shell (Elmore Leonard, eat your heart out) showed up with a warrant for Howard’s arrest. Howard shot first and Shell fired back. Shell was injured and Howard died inside his home.
The Washington Post ran an extraordinarily romantic rendering of the events, even going so far as to call the shooting a “scene”:
“The rambunctious crooner died Tuesday evening in a scene worthy of a country music song, complete with an outstanding warrant, a standoff with a seasoned bounty hunter, and a shootout in a log cabin on a quiet country lane.”
It all sounds very Butch Cassidy when you put it that way, and as a huge George Roy Hill fan, I’m very tempted to go along. Die-with-your-boots-on narratives are so seductive I think because they glorify a base human desire for violent independence that we like to think of ourselves as capable of—“Hand me that scattergun, baby, I ain’t goin’ back to jail.” They are survivor’s anthems, the fantasy of the vast majority of us who will struggle most of our lives in anonymity fighting nameless challenges—not a bounty hunter named after 12-gauge paraphernalia.
I guess that’s why we need outlaws like Randy Howard, like Butch and Sundance charging out from behind that Bolivian barn, six guns blazing. They make us feel that fighting for our own survival is a poetic and just end, as opposed to just the muddle of day-to-day life that precedes eventual death. The Post quotes a fan who described the comfort we get from embracing that narrative: “Think he went the way he wanted: fighting to the end. Last words: I ain’t going back to jail.”
But we don’t actually see them die—Butch and Sundance make their final dash into immortality only to be frozen in midstride, locked in sepia tones while gunfire sounds. Maybe nobody saw Randy Howard die either—from most of the news reports that I’ve read, it looks like he was alone, barricaded in his home—but he did die. The truth is, it’s not a sexy way to go out. The truth is, a guy that struggled with alcohol and drugs his whole life died in a gunfight in 2015—a gunfight with an antiquated form of law enforcement that in some states, like Tennessee, isn’t even adequately regulated. (The investigation into the shooting is ongoing.) Let’s be careful about romanticizing it.
A playlist for the road
So named for the Randy Howard tune "Killer on the Run." No matter what I may have said about not romanticizing Randy Howard's death, I do love me a good murder ballad. There's a couple of those on here, as well as a few famous on-the-lam rockers. Subscribe and enjoy!