RAMBLIN' ROUND: When 'The Outlaws' came to Atoka

Posters like this were put up around Oklahoma to let music lovers know about the then-upcoming "48 Hours in Atoka" Labor Day music festival.

I’ve sometimes heard it said that when people look back, they tend to remember the good things and forget, or at least mentally gloss over, other things that were not so pleasant.

Maybe so. In the years since the “48 Hours in Atoka” concert/festival hosted by McAlester’s neighbor to the south, I don’t dwell on the dust, the heat, the high-prices for food and drink, the sweaty, jammed-together pieces of humanity — that got even more jammed-together down front, close to the stage.

Nope, I tend to remember much of the great music I heard.

Music fans in the McAlester area could hardly believe their luck when they heard the news that a two-day festival would be held over the Labor Day Weekend— especially those of us who favored artists such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe and such.

It seemed at the time that the rest of the world outside Texas and Oklahoma had not yet caught on to that kind of music. That would soon change, but “48 Hours in Atoka” caught many of these artists just as they were finally getting a chance to finally perform their music, their way. At the time, we figured they were our own special secret, with the music spilling out of Texas and across the Red River into Oklahoma.

All of the aforementioned artists and more were part of the two-day Labor Day Festival called “48 Hours in Atoka.” Advance tickets were $10. That worked out to $5 a day for two days and nights full of music. Even accounting for inflation, that was still a heck of a deal!

Willie and Waylon had been around for years and achieved some success as mainstream artists in the 1960s. Check out photos from the ‘60s of a clean-cut Willie in his suit and tie, and a beardless Waylon with the slicked-back Elvis hair.

Willie had not yet achieved his legendary superstar status — well, at least outside of Texas and Oklahoma, he hadn’t. Around the time of “48 Hours in Atoka,” Willie and Waylon were not far from the beginnings of their campaigns to break loose from the country music establishment in Nashville.

Willie had made the move from Nashville to Austin only a short three years prior to the 1975 event. His album, “Red Headed Stranger” had just been released three months earlier and had not yet achieved its iconic status.

Also on the bill were original rock ‘n’ roller turned country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, Oklahoma’s own Hoyt Axton, Freddy Fender, Don Williams, Larry Gatlin, Johnny Duncan, Freddy Weller and Jessi Colter — married to Waylon and beginning to carve out her own career with her self-penned hit song, “I’m Not Lisa.”

Tulsa’s Don White Band, Debbie Campbell and a duo called Bernard and Jeff Bigby rounded out the acts for the Labor Day fest.

I knew a little of what to expect, since I’d previously attended one of Willie’s Picnics — but this would turn out to be a lot hotter and a lost dustier.

Here are a few musical snapshots:

Willie’s setlist at the time, while sprinkled with songs from “Red Headed Stranger,” still included plenty of numbers from his previous two albums on Atlantic Records, “Shotgun Willie” and the soulful “Phases and Stages,” filled with soul-wrenching songs ranging from “It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” and “I Still Can’t Believe You’re Gone” to the more playful “Pick Up the Tempo.”

Willie and Family played at night, with the stars shining overhead and delivered a riveting performance of his three-song medley: “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and the jammed-out “Night Life.”

While Willie was in the midst of song, someone walked onstage and set a huge crown on his head, I guessed to crown him the king of country music, or something. It was a huge crown, made of metal and purple cloth, of theatrical quality. Willie never missed a note.

I don’t remember much about Waylon’s performance, except it was spirited and compared to Willie’s, much shorter.

Jerry Jeff Walker, though, delivered his usual rousing set, getting at least half the crowd to cheer with the opening lines of the Ray Willey Hubbard song, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” singing “He was born in Oklahoma, his wife’s name is Betty Lou Thelma Liz.”

Jerry Jeff always let his piano player, Gary P. Nunn take a turn at the microphone to sing Gary P.’s “London Homesick Blues” — known for its signature lines “I want to go home with the armadillo.”

Freddy Fender’s set ranged from “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” to his rocking “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”

Fender responded after every song with a gracious “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” which amused me as he addressed those assorted Oklahomans and Texans sprawled across the festival grounds, sporting cowboy hats, dusty T-shirts and cutoff jeans, with those being the best-dressed ones in the crowd.

I guess Freddy kind of saw the irony too, because as he prepared to deliver yet another response to the “ladies and gentlemen,” he shrugged and grinned and said “Thank you — brothers and sisters!”

I have to admit I felt a little underwhelmed at Don Williams’ ultra-laid-back performance, delivered while he sat onstage in a chair. Even the great Jerry Lee seemed to have an off-performance from where I stood.

Hoyt Axton brought it all back home though, and David Allan Coe delivered another rowdy set.

A couple of months after “48 Hours in Atoka,” Willie would score his first number one song ever, with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” That started him on his climb to the legendary status he enjoys today.

The following January, Willie, Waylon, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser teamed up to share cuts on the album “Wanted! The Outlaws” — which became the first platinum album with one million sales in the history of country music.

For better or worse, the type of music we’d enjoyed so much in Atoka had reached beyond those Oklahoma and Texas borders with a name placed upon it by a record executive.

Outlaw music.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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