In a perfect world Michael Streissguth’s brilliant new book would come with a CD. It would be filled with notable songs he references in Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, his industry-oriented story that covers roughly the late 1960s through the late 70s.
I tend to read non-fiction with the iPad or a laptop nearby so I can cross-reference unique pieces of information, and I’m always on the lookout for rare and notable recordings or lesser-known hits so it shouldn’t be a surprise that not two chapters into this book I was spending more time on YouTube than reading. I wanted Outlaw to continue far beyond the 250-ish pages that it did.
Born in the late 70s, I didn’t comprehend that distinct eras even existed in country music until Garth exploded in the early 90s. Just prior to that, at the time when I was discovering country music, New Traditionalists like Ricky Skaggs were all the rage. Popular country had long since abandoned the outlaws for an Urban Cowboy style (influence by the film), then turned toward country-pop (Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell) before embracing the traditional music of Randy Travis, Reba and George Strait.
My parents owned the Waylon & Willie LP and, while I don’t recall a copy of Wanted! The Outlaws in our home, I vividly remember “Good Hearted Woman,” the live duet version from that album playing in the house. It’s one of those songs your parents take on as their own anthem, unwittingly emblazoning it in your own memory at the same time.
These songs and the history accompanying them really grabbed me. If you get the chance, read this book. Some highlights:
“I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye” – Willie Nelson (page 39). Before he became an outlaw, Willie wrote classics like “Hello Walls” and “Crazy,” but he hadn’t experienced any success as a recording artist. Under the stewardship of the legendary Chet Atkins, RCA tried to fit him into a popular mold (hence the eventual outlaw status), an example of which is this self-written song from 1965. It was his second single for RCA and spent two weeks on the country chart where it peaked at #48.
Streissguth suggests it was a misstep, perhaps an indication that Willie and his label were not at all in sync, in that it didn’t connect with the Nashville Sound that was so popular at the time, which RCA likely would’ve prefered, and that murder ballads like “Knoxville Girl” and “Cocaine Blues” weren’t fodder for hit singles. Just two years later, though, Porter Wagoner hit #2 with “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
“Epitaph (Black and Blue)” – Kris Kristofferson (pages 57 and 88). A music row secretary named Bobby McKee was indirectly the inspiration for “Me and Bobby McGee.” In conversation, Kristofferson misheard the name so when he was tasked with writing a song in the vein of Kerouac’s On the Road, he wrote this classic. Upon learning of Janis Joplin’s death, “Epitaph” was born.
“MacArthur Park” – Waylon Jennings and The Kimberlys (page 68). Waylon won two Grammys in his career, both were for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. One came in 1979 with Willie for “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” but his first was for this song, from 1970. In fact, it was his first major award of any kind. It is at the same time the most un-Waylon song you’ll ever hear and a surprisingly pretty one, too.
According to Streissguth, “nothing recorded before or after in Waylon’s discography sounded like this album,” an LP of duets with the Kimberlys. In 2009 it was reissued overseas but, before that, this version of “MacArthur Park,” despite the Grammy win and multiple greatest hits collections, was nearly impossible to find.
There’s an interesting story on pages 99-100 about the number of copies the record labels pressed versus consumer demand and the number they reported selling. Obviously they didn’t want to press any more copies than necessary, yet they couldn’t meet the demand when a song broke out of the pack and became a hit. So it appears they reported that these newfound hit singles were selling as many as they maybe would’ve or should’ve sold. Of course, that led to even less evidentiary reporting. And regarding chart manipulation, RCA’s head of promotion at the time, Elroy Kahanek, is quoted saying:
So I called Billboard magazine and I said, ‘Hey, do me a favor. Keep so-and-so at number two. Go ahead and take so-and-so to number one.’ They did. It wasn’t two months later another artist called me and said, ‘Elroy, please …’ I did the same thing for them. They were friends. Back then, it wasn’t so cutthroat; you helped other artists even if they were on another label.
“We Had It All” – Waylon Jennings (page 144). Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes from 1973 is credited as the very first “outlaw” album. Perhaps so new and innovative, it wasn’t terribly well received at the time. Or it may have been that RCA didn’t understand it, so nobody knew about it. The label brass didn’t see a single among the tracks he submitted, so Waylon added this song (the only one on the LP not written by Billy Joe Shaver) to appease them. RCA released it as the lead-off single, and it only went to #28. The follow-up, “You Asked Me To” went Top Ten.
“We Had It All” was subsequently recorded by many artists, notably Dolly Parton for her album of covers, The Great Pretender. The song was remixed, slapped on a new greatest hits album, and released as her final single for RCA in 1986. It stalled at #31.
The legendary Hazel Smith coined the term “outlaw” for Willie, Waylon, et.al. (page 153). She points out in this book that the definition she found as she researched the perfect word to describe them — “living on the outside of the written law” — seemed to fit because they were playing music that wasn’t part of the Nashville machine. Journalists pounced on it, and when the record label adopted the moniker with 1975’s Wanted! The Outlaws LP featuring Willie, Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Jessie Coulter, it became country music’s first million seller.
(It is noted elsewhere in this book that Johnny Cash was the very first “outlaw” in that, years before Waylon and Willie, he was choosing his own music, making his own musical arrangements, and recording with his own band — three of the criteria that, allusions to actual law-breaking aside, truly defined the outlaws as outlaws of country music.)
Speaking of actual law-breakers, David Allan Coe (page 155) appears to have been a master storyteller, capitalizing on the term and intentionally blurring the lines that defined the word “outlaw” as it was used in country music. Other than his lone monster smash hit, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” I didn’t really know anything about him before now.
There were really two types of country music in Nashville during the late 60’s. The Nashville machine (my term) was led by producer/label heads like Chet Atkins who it appears molded each artist to fit into what was called the Nashville Sound, a style of country music that embraced strings and layered vocals that attracted the masses beyond the base country audience. The other country music was linked to an area just off music row near West End Avenue and the famed Exit/In. Check out Altman’s classic 1975 film Nashville for a peak at the Exit/In at its hippest … well, peak. The mix of rock, folk and country at the club, in contrast to honky tonks on Broadway like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, provided access for someone as unique as David Allan Coe to thrive.
“Till I Gain Control Again” – Emmylou Harris (page 178). An anomaly to this entire outlaw narrative is Emmylou who seemed from the beginning of her professional career to enjoy artistic autonomy. It turns out she was signed to Warner Bros. not in Nashville but Los Angeles. The financial support provided by the label promoted her music outside the Nashville machine and covered the famed Hot Band to travel and perform with her. Rodney Crowell, a member of the Hot Band, wrote this song, originally the B-side track from the “One of These Days” single (and later a #1 for Crystal Gayle in 1983).
“Red Headed Stranger” – Willie Nelson (pages 179-184). The album was of course the first outlaw smash, and for that reason it’s sometimes credited for being many firsts: outlaw album, concept album, among them. Willie himself recorded a superb concept album a few years earlier (Yesterday’s Wine) that wasn’t well received, partly due to the record label’s indifference toward it, and according to Saving Country Music, Mickey Newbury has a greater claim to being the first outlaw of the sort defined in this book. It seems, then, that the convergence of Hazel Smith’s initial use of the term with both Waylon and Willie’s creative liberation and the embrace of the music press for the potential of an outlaw movement that led to this “red headed” perfect storm.
(link from YouTube was deleted)
As I finished reading Outlaw I coincidentally found a 3-album mini-boxset that included Yesterday’s Wine, Red Headed Stranger, and Stardust. The album is a brilliant, cohesive collection of instrumentally spare, acoustic story songs. At a time when the landscape of popular country music elevated C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” and Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” to become the biggest songs of the year, Red Headed Stranger was both a hard sell and a breath of fresh air. Willie’s industry supporters had to rally around the album just to get Columbia Records to release it.
Concept albums should be made more often. You’d think the labels would’ve forced them on the artists back in the early 2000’s when individual song downloads exploded and they started losing sales of full albums. This LP only spawned two singles: “Blue Eyes Crying In the Rain” was huge, of course, and the jazzy “Remember Me” rose to #2.
“Good Hearted Woman” – Waylon & Willie (pages 190 and 160). The song was written after Waylon became addicted to a pinball machine at a restaurant called Burger Boy, spending entire nights away from home to play the game; that is, after he became addicted to amphetamines.
(link from YouTube has been deleted)
The album Wanted! The Outlaws arrived in time for the outlaw movement to take its formal victory lap. Willie, Waylon and Jessie Coulter, Tompall Glaser, and a few others had been traveling America under something of an “Outlaws” tour, with a growing fanbase and then hit records in tow. Willie recorded Red Headed Stranger for Columbia, Jessie had “I’m Not Lisa” on Capitol, but Waylon didn’t have a big selling album yet. RCA, looking for that hit, compiled catalog recordings from Willie and Jessie’s RCA tenure a few years earlier, added new tracks from Waylon, including the live duet with Willie, and to appease Waylon it leased a couple of his friend Tompall’s recordings from MGM Records.
Notably, Jennings and Coulter’s cover of “Suspicious Minds” from this album (a #2 hit in 1976) is the exact same version that only reached #25 six years earlier. “Yesterday’s Wine” and “Me and Paul” were lifted directly from the Willie’s Yesterday’s Wine album.
“Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” – Waylon Jennings (page 237). Drug charges in the fall of 1977 only made Waylon a bigger star. Fans viewed it, as well with arrests made on his band members earlier in the 70s, as evidence of the more literal outlaw status the record label was capitalizing on. The pendulum was starting to swing back, though, and both Waylon and Willie knew it.
Willie’s decidedly un-outlaw Stardust LP was a big hit in 1978 and by the end of the year the labels were looking for a significant return on investment with every release. Urban Cowboy was around the corner and, though Waylon would maintain a string of hits through the 1980’s, he was never again such an emblematic icon.
It would appear Willie has maintained his superstar status all these subsequent years because he’s chosen to stay on the cutting edge; he hasn’t had a solo hit since 1989’s “Nothing I Can Do About It Now,” yet there is always new material, a tour, and innovative opportunities like the Daniel Lanois produced Teatro album from 1998 (which includes a new recording of “I Just Can’t Let You Say Goodbye”) and his most recent #1, “Beer For My Horses,” the Toby Keith duet from 2002.
Streissguth’s Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville has provided a massive education to me. I’d long ago known the term “outlaws” as it pertained to country music in the 1970s but didn’t, it seems, have the opportunity to investigate the phenomenon until now. It is the perfect introduction to the history and discography of these artists, as well as a fascinating glimpse into the country music industry of the 1970s.
Again, a book like this should come with its own CD — though I suppose with YouTube at everyone’s disposal nowadays we all have the opportunity to build our own soundtrack, and our own unique reading experience, exactly the way we choose.
(This was originally posted to my previous site Critically Country on July 19, 2013)