BY JOHN B. MOORE
Nashville in the late ‘60s was the closest thing the music world had to Henry Ford’s assembly line, though with more Nudie Suits. Run with an efficiency even the Mob could respect, a handful of labels, publishers and producers all inbred together lined music row southwest of downtown Nashville and ensured that just about every record that came out of the region had the same syrupy backing vocals and distracting string arrangements (with the big exception of those by legendary badass and rule breaker Johnny Cash). And that formula was to remain undisturbed until a trio of Texas rebels came to town.
Outlaw, from longtime music author (best known for 2006’s Johnny Cash: The Biography) focuses on the period in the early-to-late ‘70s when Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, among a few others, stopped into Nashville and temporarily broke the template leading to the phenomenally successful and highly influential Outlaw country movement (heard now in everyone from Lucero and The Old 97s to Steve Earle and Jamey Johnson). It’s important to note that this new breed of rebels were helped along by Cash.
During his stint in Nashville, Nelson, signed to RCA, was much more successful as a songwriter. Sick of being forced to record in the same studio with the same producers and not allowed to use his own backing band, in 1972 Willie said “fuck it,” moved back to Austin, grew his hair out, took up smoking weed and started a musical revolution that is still going strong today. Kristofferson, the Rhodes Scholar, ex-Air Force, part-time helicopter pilot and full-time poet, was much more successful as a songwriter and eventually decided to cash in on his good looks in LA. Jennings, despite being close to Willie and Kristofferson, had better luck staying put in Nashville. But his rebellious streak, and the success his buddy was having in the Lone Star State, worked to wear down his label, which eventually loosened up on the reins.
Outlaw strikes a beautiful balance between being a well-researched study of the scene at the time and a collection of holy-shit-you-should-have-been-there anecdotes. Much like his earlier efforts, Streissguth’s tone reads almost like page-turning fiction. A great textbook for the birth of a genre.