Bookworm: 'Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville'

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The first time you heard that song, you were stunned.

You wanted to turn around and hear it again. Was the singer following you around? Did the writer peek into your heart? Because every word, every note mirrored how you felt, the hurts lived, the struggles 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, Tenn., in the 1960s found much to hate: the city banned sold-by-the-glass booze, rock ’n’ roll shows were attended by police, hillbillies were everywhere and so was segregation – though Nashville had 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 guy then, and had some success as a songwriter for many major acts, but he wanted to record his own music. He signed with Monument Records, but when production slowed more than he liked, he left Monument and signed with Chet Atkins and RCA – and fumbled.

Not long after Nelson soft-landed onto the Nashville scene, Waylon Jennings came – against Nelson’s advice. Though Nelson told Jennings that the city would break his heart, he 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 Jennings signed at RCA.

In the summer of 1965, Capt. Kris Kristofferson, on his way to teach British literature at West Point, stopped in Nashville to meet with a music publisher. Kristofferson grew up in Brownsville, Texas, listening to the Grand Ole Opry, dreaming of joining Hank Williams onstage; though he was a Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson was more comfortable writing like Williams than Wordsworth. Within days, West Point lost a teacher and Nashville gained a songwriter.

Years later, Nelson left Nashville for Texas, but returned. Jennings married Jessi and reluctantly gained some Angels as bodyguards. Kristofferson found Hollywood. And Atkins had to step aside for the outlaws.

Outlaw is filled with all kinds of names that only the biggest country music fans will recognize. Yes, the musicians you loved are mentioned here, but so are a lot of minor players from 30 and 40 years ago; people long gone.

Streissguth shares tidbits, tales, and telling facts about the three main Outlaws who started a revolution. This book is filled with I-didn’t-know-that moments and things you forgot, and that’s awfully fun to read.


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