Out of Exile: Outlaws’ Henry Paul Rides Down the ‘Dixie Highway’

Second-wave Southern rockers find themselves “in the best place they could possibly be” with new album Dixie Highway.

From the mid-‘70s through the early ‘80s, some Brooklyn and Queens kids would hang out on street corners or in parks playing air guitar to hits by what is now considered “the second-wave of Southern rock,” which included Molly Hatchet, Blackfoot, and Outlaws. Following in the wake of The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s breakthrough success, these artists created epics that resonate more than 40 years later. The Outlaws’ “Green Grass & High Tides,” featuring what can best be described as a guitar army in the middle of a gun fight, was and remains a timeless classic.

Since their inception nearly 50 years ago, Outlaws have had a profound influence on Southern rock. Yet, they never achieved the success or the recognition they deserved. Perhaps it was timing. Just as they began filling arenas, new wave and heavy metal exploded. Perhaps it was just bad luck. More likely, however, it was the band’s revolving door membership and changing their sound during the ‘80s that left the band’s fans confused and alienated. Ironically, during his time away from the band, founding member and current leader, Henry Paul, pioneered modern country music as the frontman of his namesake band.

Billy Jones, Frank O’Keefe, and Hughie Thomasson have all passed, leaving Paul and drummer Monte Yoho all that remain of the classic Outlaws’ lineup, yet I must argue when Paul says the first three Outlaws albums—1975’s Outlaws, 1976’s Lady in Waiting, and 1977’s Hurry Sundown—are “the band’s heritage.” The new Dixie Highway (Steamhammer/SPV) is not only a great album, but it’s befitting of the band’s legacy. A bona fide Outlaws record, it celebrates Southern rock, its fallen heroes and its often-difficult lifestyle. A few other reasons why it sounds so much like an early Outlaws record: the inevitable concert staple “Showdown,” an instrumental, “Heavenly Blues,” a rearranged rendition of an early band favorite, and “Windy City’s Blue,” a previously unrecorded song written by the late O’Keefe.

Despite feeling under the weather, Henry Paul took a few minutes out to jaw with AQ.

You have referred to the Outlaws’ first three albums as the band’s “true heritage.”

Of course, that just happens to coincide with the albums I was [a part of]. [Laughs]

Dixie Highway is befitting of that legacy. It could have followed those three classics.

It is so difficult to pack your suitcase, put it in the car or truck, and drive to meet the [tour] bus, leaving a beautiful young wife and a darling four-year-old boy behind; traveling with a dozen people on a single bus and play to smaller audiences, unless you have a good reason [to do so]. I always try to surround myself with people of talented character. Putting the right people in the band and having fun with those people—for as long as I have—at this late date in our musical career, we have seemed to have gotten it right. It is just a matter of being able to hang in there long enough to enjoy it. We’re no longer staring down deadlines to any significant degree; or expectations; or chart numbers. There is no pressure about upcoming stadium dates or televisions appearances, where you don’t want to take a misstep in front of all those people. So now, we, sort of, get to play in our own backyard, but continue to write and record at a significant, high level. And we can create these records that sound familiar to the fans, and, lyrically, deal with subjects that are important to us.

The album celebrates Southern rock. Unlike earlier efforts, however, it doesn’t look at the struggle, it looks at the accomplishments.

When we were younger, we wrote about life on the road. What we were talking about back then was separation anxiety and the blowing up of one’s dream; the excitement it precipitated and all the social advantages that came with it. It was overwhelming. The dream is one thing, but the reality proved to be something significantly different. [The members of Lynyrd Skynyrd] went down in an airplane; Buddy Holly, just trying to make a little money during the winter, went down in an airplane; or this guy overdosed on drugs and that guy drank too much: they are tragic stories. The price tag for wanting to [create] music and find an audience is intoxicating on so many levels, but it’s also destructive and damaging. So, you can end up in a band where you and maybe one other guy are the only ones still standing.

It came as a shock when founding member Hughie Thomasson passed in 2007 just after reuniting the band with you and Monte.

When you listen to the songs [on Dixie Highway], they are rather repentant and forgiving. They are more “open arms,” kinder and gentler. It is easier to miss someone when they are gone than it is to get along with them when they are here. Mortality is one of the harder parts of living, but when it is an advanced version of that it resonates in a much more reasonable way. When I go to bed at night, I expect to wake up the next morning. When I get in the truck to go to the grocery store, I expect to come home. I don’t have a terminal view of things. I am optimistic, but I also believe there is a naivety that comes with that. I won’t alter my view, however, I’m just happy to live life the way I do.

Some music veterans try to recapture the past by using old riffs when writing new songs. I got nervous the first time I listened to “Heavenly Blues,” before I realized it was a new arrangement of an Outlaws’ classic.

[The re-recording] was something the label wanted. They didn’t want “Heavenly Blues” specifically, but an older song. At first, I was [uncertain] about doing that, but when we delved into “Heavenly Blues,” in my opinion, we were able to improve upon the original. My vocal performance and the music arrangement were far and away better than the original.

How old were you when you originally recorded the song?

I was in my mid-20s.

Your years of experience, arranging, and performing helped improve upon the original version.

It helped a lot. And being in a band of equitable musical partners that are willing to invest their talent in other people’s songs helped. Songs for the band come through me, otherwise we’re a musical democracy. The arrangements come from the entire band.

You also included the previously unrecorded “Windy City’s Blue” after unearthing a 1972 demo by founding bassist Frank O’Keefe.

Frank was a great guitarist who played bass in the band. And his bass playing was an enormous contribution to the group. He was also a heck of a songwriter and a singer. He just got rolled over by me and Hughie, because we were much more prolific and dominant musical personalities. “Windy City’s Blue” was one of the few songs of his that we demoed. I knew there was a great song in there and we were finally able to bring that out. It is very Allman Brothers-esque. [Current Outlaws guitarist] Dale [Oliver] came down to visit me in the Atlanta area, where I was living at the time. The band had a date south of Macon [Georgia] at small expo center. We were scheduled to play with The Charlie Daniels Band at a South Georgia state fair. Dale and I decided to drive down to meet the [tour] bus. We took a slight tour through Macon so we could see where Capricorn Studios was and eat lunch at H&H Restaurant [where the Allman Brothers often dined]. So, we had this baptism in the spirit of that town and that time. After that, the record seemed to take on this lyrical theme. One song after another seemed to be about where the [Outlaws] came from and how we got to this place. I’ve been told that Dixie Highway is a concept record.

I interpreted the album as a Southern rock celebration as opposed to a concept record.

I wanted to put familiar elements in the musical landscape throughout [the record]. “Overnight from Athens” and even “Heavenly Blues,” give the band that country-rock character….

In addition to “Windy City’s Blue,” is there anything else you are sitting on for future records?

There are a few things. There was a song or two from the older days that were looked at a little closer, but publishing interests and conflicting positions made it difficult to put any and all things out there. I made the decision to cut “Windy City’s Blue,” because it was unfettered.

I do have one complaint about Dixie Highway. Why is the instrumental “Showdown” only three minutes and 10 seconds long? Why couldn’t it have been a longer, epic guitar battle?

That’s a good question. Maybe, we just gave into our commercial-music instincts.

Will it be longer when the band performs it live?

It does open the door for musical exploration. When we play it out, it doesn’t have to be that musical arrangement, we can make it what we want. That is a very good idea. If it becomes a 12-minute instrumental on our next live album, we will give you credit.

Are you annoyed the Outlaws don’t receive more recognition for their musical contributions?

I do believe the first three albums, in their organic musical character, were the Outlaws. We had Paul Rothchild [The Doors] produce the first two and Bill Szymczyk [The Eagles] produce the third. We had the advantage of working with competent people, especially when we recorded at Criteria Studios.

The first three records were recorded at the famed studio in Miami?

The first one was recorded in Los Angeles. The last two were recorded in Miami. Had the Outlaws helped one another along the difficult struggle of staying afloat in the rough water where we dwelled; if we were a little more compassionate and a little more generous with one another; if the band stayed together in its original form, perhaps we could have accomplished a great deal more. But you can’t change what already happened. So, when Monte called me [in 2007] and told me Hughie had died and wanted me to help him understand what he was going to do, my initial thought was “Let’s put the band back together and continue on.”

I had read that Hughie had just left Lynyrd Skynyrd, which at the time had morphed into a Southern rock supergroup, to reform the Outlaws with you and Monte.

What he and I had discussed with our manager Charlie was that we would put a tour together. I urged Hughie not to leave Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Outlaws, in their most vital and musically relevant form, would have a hard time matching the marquee value of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But he wanted to get back into his old role and nothing I could say could change his mind. I told Monte the same thing. Monte had a great job in Branson [Missouri], playing show music in a theme park, but making good money. And he had an opportunity to move into the front office and start a human resources career. But he insisted on moving back to Florida. I understand the attraction to be in such a band, but a year later, Hughie was gone. So, I decided to be the guy who put it all back together with Monte. But the challenges that that represented were enormous. And the scrutiny was enormous. I think commitment and attention to detail have helped us win the war. I think the Outlaws, given that Frank, Billy and Hughie are no longer with us, are currently in the best place they could possibly be.