Music

A Country Sound From the South… of Boston: A conversation with Ward Hayden

Ward Hayden and The Outliers are back in the saddle and bringing their brand of outlaw country, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll to a watering hole near you. 

Hayden picked up music relatively late (24), when the songs started flowing after he received a Gibson J45 guitar as a gift. He started Girls, Guns, and Glory in 2005 as a way to have fun with friends, but made the move to Boston a few years later and decided to make the band work for real.

Hayden’s foundation is early country music, citing as influences Lefty Frizell, the yodeling of Jimmy Rodgers, and the songwriting approach of Hank Williams – simply stated yet profound. 

The name Girls, Guns, and Glory paid homage to the motifs of ‘50s cowboy westerns and the rugged exploits of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. But eventually, the name was dragging them down and creating unintended controversy. They permanently made the switch to Ward Hayden and The Outliers in 2018. “It’s not ideal when you’ve put years into building a brand, but on the other hand it’s been nice to not offend folks before we even set foot on stage.”

Hayden doesn’t aim to avoid the issues entirely, though. The band’s latest record, 2021’s Free Country, wrestles directly with the ills of society, including political polarization and our era of negativity. 

“2016 laid bare a lot of things about the country and a lot of people. I’ve honestly never felt disappointed in people in that way before, but maybe people are disappointed with me for my opinions,” said Hayden.

“I’d Die For You” looks at the fractured American landscape (“People have become more extreme/narrowed their focus to their own beliefs”) and “Irregardless” bemoans the influence of smartphones (“You take it in ‘til you tune it out”).

“Shelly Johnson” is a Twin Peaks-themed character study about a town past its prime and a small-town waitress stuck in an abusive marriage. “Indiana” continues the country tradition of singing about (and listing off) states.  

“Middle Man,” one Hayden highlighted as a favorite, stands out for its crooning vocal and spaghetti western sound. “For me, I’d never thought much about growing older, and all my dreams were a young man’s dreams. I always wanted to cut out the middleman, and go from youth to the end. But if you live long enough you have to start facing some other realities.”

It’s not all tumbleweeds and pedal steel, and you could easily consider Free Country a rock record. Springsteen-esque heartland rockers like “Nothing To Do (For Real This Time)” and “Sometimes You Gotta Leave” have the hooks to skewer even country-averse Yankees. 

When starting, Hayden noted the band regularly faced being too country for the rock venues and too amplified for a lot of the country and folk ones. “It took a few years to start finding a home, but we’re lucky that people like Patrick Norton at The Narrows believed in the band and let us build an audience.” 

“Bad Time (To Quit Drinkin’)” is the song to win over everybody – a tightly-written tune about hangovers, regrets, and time flying by at breakneck speed. 

Free Country was made with the support of a fan-funded Kickstarter after the band’s 2020 tour was cut short between Lexington, KY and Memphis on the way to South by Southwest. “With the dates dried up we didn’t have a means to generate any income,” said Hayden. Fans responded with a “wonderful gift of generosity,” donating enough to record, mix and master the album, as well as the moral support to release it. 

The list of renowned country singers from the South Shore of Massachusetts is not a long one, and Ward admitted they do have more to prove as a country act from the Northeast. “We’ve done a lot of touring in the South, and sometimes I don’t even say we’re from Boston till later in the show once the crowd has warmed up to what we’re doing. For the most part, nobody for a second thinks we’re from New England.” 

Hayden says he’s never spent much time listening to what passes for modern country. “More power to those that have achieved success, but the type of music I make and what’s called country on the radio are similar in name only. I don’t believe that five people sitting in a room and contriving an idea of what they can use to pander to sell is art – though maybe Andy Warhol would disagree.” 

Find Ward Hayden and The Outliers’ music on Bandcamp.

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