The 1977 film, Outlaw Blues, opens in Huntsville State Prison. An arrogant country music star named Garland Dupree (James T. Callahan) is about to perform for the prisoners. He’s hoping his Huntsville concert will do for him what playing at Folsom did for Johnny Cash. The warden insists that Garland listen to a song written and performed by a soft-spoken prisoner named Bobby Ogden (Peter Fonda). A visibly annoyed Garland agrees but he doesn’t actually listen while Bobby performs. Instead, Garland is too busy arguing with the manager of his record label, Hatch (Michael Lerner). However, the members of Garland’s backup band record Bobby as he sings.
Several months later, Bobby is about to be released from prison when he learns that Garland is performing his song. Not only has Garland made it a hit but he’s also taking credit for writing it! Garland and Hatch even copyrighted the song, something that Bobby was never able to do because he was in prison.
Released from prison, Bobby ends up in Austin. He wants to stay out of prison and get his life straightened out. He wants to pursue a career as a singer. And he wants Garland to admit that he stole Bobby’s song. Unfortunately, when Bobby confronts Garland, things escalate and Garland ends up accidentally getting shot. Garland survives but now Bobby has the police after him. With the help of one of Garland’s former backup singers, Tina Waters (Susan Saint James), Bobby tries to become a star while staying one step ahead of the cops. Like the outlaws of old, Bobby and Tina sneak around Texas, performing where they can. (Knowing that any publicity is good publicity, Tina often calls the cop just as Bobby finishes his show, all the better for her and Bobby to make a dramatic escape.) Hatch is eager to record and release a Bobby Ogden record but both Bobby and Tina know that he can’t be trusted. But with the cops closing in, what choice do they have?
For a film about criminals on the run, Outlaw Blues is a surprisingly loose and laid back movie. It’s definitely a product of the 70s. It celebrates rebellion and doing your own thing, it mixes drama and comedy and, because it was made in the 70s, you know there’s always a good chance that, regardless of how pleasant the majority of the film may be, everyone’s going to die at the end of the movie. That definitely adds some tension to the film’s story that might not otherwise be there. For the most part, though, this is an enjoyable little lark of a drive-in movie. It celebrates individualism while also finding time for a few songs and a car chase or two.
A good deal of the film’s charm is the result of the chemistry between the two stars. Peter Fonda and Susan Saint James just seem as if they belong together and they both play characters who are written with slightly more depth than you might otherwise expect from what was obviously meant to be a cheap, drive-in film. Tina may appear to be a hippie but, as played by Saint James, she eventually turns out to be a clever businesswoman and promoter. As for Peter Fonda, he definitely had his acting limitations but he also had a nice smile and a far more likable screen presence than you might suspect if you only know him from his remote performance in Easy Rider. In Outlaw Blues, Fonda’s inexpressive manner feels right for someone who has spent most of his life in prison and who is still adjusting to being on the outside. Fonda wins you over and, once his character falls in love with Saint James, Fonda starts to relax and you get the feeling that both he and Bobby Ogden are having fun.
Outlaw Blues may be a minor 70s film but it’s likable. It has an amiable spirit which makes it worth watching.