Nashville’s chapter on the outlaw remains one of country’s greatest entries in the book of American music history. The three most visible and memorable figures in that story are, of course, the men listed by name in the title of this new work from Michael Streissguth, an author who has written extensively about another Nashville rebel, Johnny Cash. This volume isn’t only about Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, though they loom large in the narrative, but it is mostly about the way the ground shook in the ‘60s as each of these iconoclastic figures and their cohorts upset many of Music City’s conservative notions. Streissguth captures this pivotal moment in less than 250 pages with a fan’s enthusiasm and a scholar’s attention to detail.
Neither Jennings nor Nelson conquered the city upon arrival. Nelson wrote three classic songs: “Crazy”, “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”, which were recorded by Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles. But his own recordings failed to attract major attention and his chart appearances were sometimes impressive but most often scattered. Nelson felt that no one in the industry appreciated his work and he bounced from Liberty to RCA to Atlantic before landing at Columbia. He’d issued some fine recordings, including 1970’s Yesterday’s Wine and 1974’s concept piece, Phases and Stages, but his real break didn’t come until he’d moved to Austin and released 1975’s Red Headed Stranger (another concept album).
Jennings had worked briefly with Buddy Holly, had grown a loyal following in Phoenix and had the misfortune of signing with A&M, a label more in tune with folk and pop than country and western. He’d later take up with RCA, which eventually wove a spell for him it had never been able to weave for Nelson. Chet Atkins, according to Streissguth, “believed that he had signed the next Johnny Cash” and although Jennings didn’t have a massive run of hits early on his songs were charting; he was also drawing from a deep well of material, including “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” and a smattering of Dylan tunes plus a few from Nashville newcomer (and former Rhodes scholar) Kristofferson.
Kristofferson’s literary background may have worked against him, he was probably the only guy in Nashville pulling ideas from Candide at the time and his ragged voice didn’t have much appeal early on, either. He wasn’t as easy on the ear as Jim Reeves or as focused on hooks as Don Rollins but, like Dylan before him, he captured Cash’s attention and in 1970 the Man in Black recorded “Sunday Morning Coming Down”.
Among the factors that benefited these new rebels was a greater awareness of the album: Nelson, Kristofferson, Cash and Jennings could appreciate the form even if their record companies couldn’t. Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, arguably outlaw country’s first shot. Comprised almost entirely of Billy Joe Shaver compositions, the record’s an undeniable classic though it’s made weaker by the non-Shaver composition, “We Had It All”. Penned by Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals the song was the artist’s concession to RCA’s insistence on a single. Not only does the song sound like it was recorded in a different universe, it also became one of Jennings’ worst selling singles in years. The record received some positive praise from Rolling Stone but never became the behemoth it might have been; without a single that absolutely ignited radio, the album became a secondary concern.
The outlaw tag, of course, wasn’t just about the music or the lyrical themes being explored in songs from David Allan Coe and Kinky Friedman but about the behavior of these musicians, as well. Jennings, Streissguth writes, often wore “leather vests or coats, blue jeans, and a black cowboy hat; and, in deference to the hippies, whimsical embroidery appeared on his shirts and beaded hemp hugged his neck”. He was known to like drugs and frequently argued with producer Atkins about his intake. Nelson would in future years become synonymous with marijuana and Kristofferson’s ties with Janis Joplin helped solidify the idea that these men were functioning well outside convention.
The outlaw tag actually came from Hazel Smith, who worked for the Glaser Brothers, and when asked by a North Carolina disc jockey, how to describe the music made by Tompall Glaser and Waylon Jennings, suggested “outlaw”. He explains in the book that “What these guys were doing, the music, was certainly different from what had ever been done in this hillbilly town”. The name stuck and also gave rise to 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws, a compilation that featured cuts from Jennings, Nelson, Glaser and Jessi Colter (married to Jennings). Though it wasn’t an entirely honest presentation (the “live” cuts don’t seem all that live to some) the record became the first million seller in country music and cashed in not only the success of its two biggest stars but encouraged listeners to dig deeper into each man (and woman’s) discography.
By then Kristofferson was deep in the throes of a successful acting career, ringing up credits with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and A Star Is Born. His discography was hardly extensive and by the time To the Bone appeared in 1981 he’d all but stopped recording, releasing only that record and one other for the decade. His political interests took over, though for a moment he was perhaps the biggest star to emerge from Nashville’s rebel classes. (Nelson even made a few movies and Jennings figured prominently on the television series The Dukes of Hazzard.)
What happened to those performers (and others like them) in the decades that followed is well established, although easily worth a book of its own. Streissguth’s newest volume is filled with stories about these men (and others like them), some humorous, some sad, but none of them ordinary or absent the stuff of legends.
Outlaw captures the spirit and spit of country’s Outlaw decade and the sweat of the artists who made it so.