Certainly it has to do with msuicians and singers who are outside of the mainstream. But that definition casts a huge net. It has to do with honesty and earnestness. But there's more to it than that. There are many musicians who are really good but will never "make it." And being in the realm of outsider music isn't about being good. The best known and most beloved outsiders aren't great. Many are terrible (by most of the usual yardsticks). But not too terrible. There's some kind of sweet spot in there -- awful, but compelling. That's a tall order. I can't really define it. You can look it up on Wikipedia if you want. But I find that unsatisfying. Irwin Chusid is one of the leading experts on the genre. He wrote a book on the subject, titled Songs in the Key of Z. The companion CD and its sequel provide several examples.
Yet there are a handful of recording artists both past and present who are generally recognized as being at the epicenter of whatever outsider music is (and however it is defined. A few of those artists?
A band of three sisters who recorded what Rolling Stone once called the worst album ever. Now, I know what RS was getting at, though that classification was wrong. The Shaggs' album (both of them actually) sucked. The vocals were frightening, the rhythm was off, and the songs were disturbing. But that's better than many supremely boring albums.
A homeless schizophrenic street singer who somehow managed to record several dozen albums and tour extensively. His songs seem to all have the same elements: A tinny repetitious synthesizer track, a chorus that consists of him repeating the title over and over, and verses that consisted of him shouting sentences about the subject. Many of his songs were about celebrities he had met, and the lyrics were along the lines of "You are a great musician!" or "You are a nice person to the max!" My favorite of his numbers is the classic, "Shoot Me in the Ass."
Wild Man Fischer
Another schizophrenic homeless man. But Wild Man ("Larry" to its friends) was also severely paranoid and bipolar. He wasn't as prolific as Wesley, but he did have the distinction of recording the first release by Rhino Records. He also worked with Frank Zappa for a time, until they had a falling out.
BJ was (is? I'm too lazy to look it up) a music teacher in Massachusetts. She is best known for two songs -- "In Canada" and "America" which are tributes to their respective countries. Her enunciation is off. Her lyrics are off. So off that one would think that it was done on purpose. But as far as I know she was absolutely serious.
There are others, and I intend to talk more about outsider music in a future post. I have some definite thoughts to express. But this is the intro to whet your appetite. Following are videos of some of the better-known outsiders.
"Philosophy of the World" by The Shaggs
"Cousin Mosquito" by Congresswoman Malinda Jackson Parker
"Jailhouse Rock" by Eilert Pilarm