Man on horse in Texas rodeo
Weldon Byrd leads his horse out of the chute as a competitor in Huntsville's Texas Prison Rodeo in 1977. Photo by Bill Kennedy

The outlaw ethos remains a central element of Texas’ nonconformist identity. Though the term is often flattened into pop culture claptrap, scratch beneath the surface of the cliché and you’ll find layers of richness. The stories in this issue explore the breadth of the concept, from the literal definition, of those who break the law, to the notion of outlaws as outsiders, rebels, and pioneers.

The 1970s outlaw country movement is a common touchpoint for Texans’ outlaw reputation. The era saw singers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings claiming their freedom from Nashville’s more polished country music scene. Writer-at-large Joe Nick Patoski, who penned a biography on Nelson and has written about Texas culture for over 50 years, says the current crop of female outlaw country musicians has eclipsed the spirit of its originators. “They’re working outside the box, presenting music in an indie context, and telling stories about subjects Nashville would rather not talk about,” he says. “Texas celebrates its contrarian ways, and the outlaw spirit speaks to Texans’ sense of independence.”

More than a 100 years before Nelson picked up a guitar, corridistas along the Texas-Mexico border were singing their independence through narrative ballads that shared news, memorialized heroes and victims, and protested oppressive authorities. The original legal definition of an outlaw as someone outside the protection of the law gets even closer to the spirit of the corrido. Historically and up to present-day, corridos often tell stories that would otherwise remain untold.

When it comes to the perspectives of the literal outlaws who competed in the Texas Prison Rodeo, pictured above and on the cover, the narratives are murkier. While plenty of records exist about their performances in the popular event that ran for 50 years in Huntsville, little is known about their lives outside the arena. That may change soon as their stories have piqued the interest of Hollywood. A book on the history of the event by Mitchel P. Roth, a professor at Sam Houston State University who is quoted in our cover story, has been optioned and is in development for a feature film. In Texas’ outlaw epic, there’s always a new chapter to tell.

Emily Roberts Stone
Editor in Chief

From the September 2023 issue

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