Attention, people of Texas in general and Austin in particular: Michael Streissguth, author of “Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville,” insists that the title is not personal.
Indeed, it absolutely makes sense.
When most folks think of outlaw country, they think of Texas. “Progressive” country, the Armadillo World Headquarters, hippies and rednecks getting together: These things are as crucial to the mythology of late 20th-century Austin as anything.
But Waylon Jennings, he of the massive voice, rugged persona and love of the guitar phaser-effect; Willie Nelson, he of “Red-Headed Stranger” and dealing with super-stardom better than most; Kris Kristofferson, he of a genuinely revolutionary way to write country songs: These guys were rebelling against Nashville, not Texas.
And Nashville was still (and is still) the world capital of country music, the center of the industry, the place where all three artists spent an awful lot of time.
“I do feel like Nashville lived in some ways in the shadows of this movement,” Streissguth says.
The Le Moyne College professor is the author of several books on country music, including two on Johnny Cash. “They had come from Texas, but they were based in Nashville, for the most part,” Streissguth says. (Willie’s Texas residency excluded.) “I wanted to tell the Nashville side of the story.”
Streissguth says the book started when he began to look into the life and times of the great Waylon Jennings.
“When ‘Crazy Heart’ with Jeff Bridges came out, it reminded me that Jennings had been dead (about seven years), and he seemed to be slipping from memory,” Streissguth says. He started getting into Waylon’s life and career, and that opened up the outlaw topic.
“Outlaw” traces the movement via the very different career paths of Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson. All three intersected with each other’s careers, all three embodied a new way of thinking about (and writing and recording) country music.
But all three started at different points and arrived at very different places. Along with way, Streissguth folds in figures such as Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Kinky Friedman, and, of course, Johnny Cash.
“I don’t want to say there is a specific path from Cash to outlaw,” Streissguth says. However, Cash is certainly a player, recording Kristofferson’s songs and engaging progressive singer-songwriters on his short-lived-but-increasingly legendary TV show, which featured performances from Kristofferson, Jennings and Bob Dylan.
In fact, Dylan’s recording “Blonde on Blonde” in Nashville is one of the key moments in the development of outlaw country. “There was one ‘a-ha!’ moment in writing this, and that was finding out that Kristofferson was working as a studio lackey during the ‘Blonde on Blonde’ sessions,” Streissguth says. “I don’t think you can’t discount how Dylan changed Nashville.”
Then again, Streissguth got a lot of time with Kristofferson. “He was very generous,” Streissguth says. “I didn’t talk to Willie, though I tried, and Waylon came alive for me through his drummer and confidant Richie Albright. Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Roseanne Cash were great as well.”
What emerges is a case for Nashville as its own incubator, a place where, for a brief period of time, this sort of songwriting flourished.
“I do think that we typecast Nashville,” Streissguth says. “There was very much a Greenwich Village-like scene in the West End,” the neighborhood that helped nurture all of the book’s heroes.
In fact, there were many aspects to Nashville in this period that Streissguth thinks have been under-reported or are becoming forgotten. An entire generation knows Kristofferson more as a character actor than a songwriter.
“It’s a cliche at this point, but Kristofferson’s songwriting changed Nashville, it really did,” Streissguth says. “And I developed a great appreciation for producers such as Fred Foster and Jack Clement. These guys were serious risk takers. They took chances on artists, and you need that in a vibrant scene. Anything that is pioneering involves money and risk.”
Streissguth notes that Clement collected these songwriters, giving them publishing deals and pushing them to think big about their careers. “He would say, ‘you’re a writer, but have you thought about performing? What about film-making?’”
Waylon, the reason for all of this research, also came under some revision.
“There was a lot of bluster surrounding him and this idea that the was rebelling for the sake of rebelling,” Streissguth says. “But you look at the nuances of his career, and he really had been beaten down by the Nashville machine. He was thinking about packing it in and becoming a session guitarist.”
And then there were Waylon’s personal habits. “Cocaine is almost a character in this book,” Streissguth says. (Speed is pretty important as well.) “I think Waylon’s suspicion of journalists and fans really harmed him in the long run. Had Waylon made himself more accessible to the world, the way Willie did, I suspect we would be talking about him in the same way as Willie.”
Ah, Willie. He really does emerge from “Outlaw” better than anyone.
“No question he becomes the quintessential outlaw figure,” Streissguth says. Kristofferson went Hollywood, Waylon flamed out, but Willie endured. “He’s remained on this even path, and he’s still such a powerful symbol of so many aspects of American culture.”
Michael Streissguth’s 10 Essential Outlaw Country Songs
1) “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” by Waylon Jennings
2) “Ain’t Living Long Like This” by Rodney Crowell
3) “To Beat the Devil” by Kris Kristofferson
4) “Good Hearted Woman” by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings
5) “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson
6) “Honky Tonk Heroes” by Billy Joe Shaver
7) “Red-Headed Stranger” by Edith Lindeman Calisch and Carl Stutz
8) “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?” by Waylon Jennings
9) “Billy” by Tony Joe White
10) “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Cowboys” by Ed Bruce and Patsy Bruce
‘Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville’
It Books, $26.99