Make no mistake: Waylon, Willie and Kristofferson are all characters in Michael Streissguth’s book about Nashville. And while they are major characters, they are not the only characters, nor are they the main characters. That would be the town of Nashville itself, and its symbiotic twin, the country music machine.
Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville takes aim at the stodgy tradition that is at the epicenter of country music and details the “greening” (pun intended) of Nashville. And while those title characters had a huge hand in kicking down that door, it was, as Streissguth notes, Johnny Cash with his groundbreaking TV show “The Johnny Cash Show” and Bob Dylan's album Blonde on Blonde — both birthed in Nashville — that pushed the door ajar.
Those seeking detailed bios of Willie, Waylon and Kristofferson might be disappointed; their stories are mainly limited to this period of their careers, with a bit of pre- and post-mortem to bring them in and take them out of the Nashville story that is the heart of this book. Each of the three outsiders — coincidentally all Texans — brought different philosophies to town: Kristofferson brought the poetry and wordplay, Waylon wanted to break free of Nashville’s strict structure and feature his own band and produce his own records, and Willie favored more complex song cycles and concepts than the Nashville hit parade was used to churning out.
Enter the “outlaw” label. Hazel Smith, who worked for Tompall Glaser and his brother at the Hillbilly Central recording studio coined it when describing Waylon and Tompall to a DJ. It’s important to note here that Waylon and Willie’s first few albums outside of the Nashville system were not all that successful, much like their earlier records — Willie’s iconic Red Headed Stanger was reluctantly accepted by his label. And while the author gives the three men the lion’s share of the credit for reshaping Nashville’s rules, there are plenty of other outsider characters that populate this Southern Gothic tale. Billy Joe Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Kinky Friedman, Emmylou Harris and Roseanne Cash all flexed their independent muscles. And if Willie, Kris and Waylon were musical and cultural outlaws, Lee Emerson was the real deal.
The “outlaw” brand, ironically enough, only became commercially successful when RCA/Nashville boss Jerry Bradley hit on the idea of repackaging vault tracks from Waylon, Willie and Glaser. So while these three artists may have been musical outlaws, "outlaw" country was nothing but a marketing ploy, right down to the album cover, and once it hit paydirt (THE first million-selling album in country history), look out! As Rodney Crowell notes: “It’s always that way. That’s how that machine down there works. When money starts being generated, they cast an eye.”
I might argue that what happened in Nashville in the early '70s was no different than in many other parts of America. It just arrived later and was met with more resistance, but ultimately the counterculture left its mark upon Nashville, its music and its music industry much the same as it did elsewhere in this country — musically, artistically, philosophically and culturally. Streissguth himself cites several parallel situations — Hollywood auteurs Martin Scorcese and Robert Altman specifically — where the status quo was being shaken up by young artists challenging the tried and true methods of their art. Still, you can’t argue that these boys didn't shake the joint up.
This is a sprawling story but takes place over just a few short years. At times, Streissguth gets a little bogged down in history and academics but this is a highly readable book that helps explain this country’s obsession with country music, and Nashvillle’s marketing primacy of the product, And, if you need additional proof that Rodney Crowell hit the nail on the head, just look what became of these renegades: “The whole outlaw sales vehicle was dismembered and its pieces appropriated for…the brief and vacuous Urban Cowboy fad, where disco met outlaw fashion.” What's shiny and new soon becomes old and faded — but we’re STILL stuck with Garth Brooks.
Although the book had a very unsatisfying ending for me, I would recommend it to country music fans. If you’re a hard country fan, put it at the top of your reading list. If you’re a hat country fan, you should also pick it up — and read it several times. Guys like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings are the real deal. And we need more guys like them. For the good times.
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