The first time you heard that song, you were stunned.
You wanted to turn around and listen to it again. Was the singer following you around? Did the writer peek into your heart? Because every word, every note exactly mirrored how you felt, the hurts you lived, the struggle you endured.
To get that feeling, you just know that the songwriter had to go through that same pain. And in the new book “Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville” by Michael Streissguth, you’ll see that each struggle was worth it.
Music executives and critics visiting Nashville in the 1960s were nothing but critical: The city had a ban on booze sold by the glass, rock ’n’ roll shows were attended by police, hillbillies were everywhere and so was segregation — though Nashville did have a reputation for being progressive on race.
Willie Nelson came to Nashville in 1960 after 10 years of odd jobs and Texas honky-tonks. He was a clean-cut kind of guy then, and had some success as a songwriter for many major acts, but he wanted to record his own music. He first signed on with Monument Records, but when production slowed more than to his liking, he left Monument and signed on with Chet Atkins and RCA — and fumbled.
Not long after Willie soft-landed onto the Nashville scene, Waylon Jennings came to Nashville against Willie’s advice. Though Willie told Waylon that the city would break his heart, Waylon quickly landed a gig at a club and was “king” in short order. He had a good reputation for music, money — and pills. He also had a stubborn streak, much to Atkins’ chagrin when Waylon signed on at RCA.
In the summer of ’65, Capt. Kris Kristofferson, on his way to teach British literature at West Point, stopped at Nashville to meet with a music publisher. Kristofferson grew up in Brownsville, listening to the Grand Ole Opry show and dreaming of joining Hank Williams onstage. He wrote songs like Hank, from college to his Rhodes Scholar days, to his stint with the military.
A few days after arriving in town, he resigned his commission at West Point.
Willie left Nashville for Texas, but returned. Waylon married Jessi and reluctantly gained some Angels as bodyguards. Kris found Hollywood. And Atkins had to step aside for the outlaw path.
I was torn about this book.
On one hand, “Outlaw” is filled with all kinds of names that only the biggest fans will recognize. Yes, the musicians you loved are mentioned in this book, but so are a lot of minor players from 30 and 40 years ago.
And yet, I liked this book. Streissguth shares tidbits, tales and telling facts about the three main Outlaws who started a revolution and changed an American institution.