Michael Streissguth has written books on country legends Jim Reeves, Eddy Arnold, and Johnny Cash (including the definitive Cash biography Cash: the Biography). His newest book, Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, examines the origins of the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s, covering the careers of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of songwriters from Nashville to Austin. Today he talks a little about that book:
Music Tomes: You focus a lot on the songwriters in Nashville and some of the artists coming out of Texas in the beginning of what became the Outlaw movement. Where do their roots come from in starting such a movement?
Michael Streissguth: The main characters in the book–Waylon, Willie and Kris–were Texans by birth, so Lone Star ethos burned inside them. Texas also birthed a new generation of outlaws who came to Nashville in the 1970s; I’m thinking about songwriters Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and others. As far as the movement, which was about asserting independence, I think that came from the times. So many old barriers in our society were falling in the late 1960s and early 1970s that anything seemed possible, including recording for major labels according to one’s own vision.
MT: Of course Waylon and Willie are the two most associated with the Outlaw Country movement, but they have often said they didn’t consider what they were doing to be “outlaw.” Did the marketing of their music as “Outlaw” have any adverse effects on their career as it was happening?
MS: As you suggest, both Waylon and Willie could be dismissive of the outlaw label, but they both prospered commercially under it. To your question about adverse effects, the label may have enforced a formula or an image that they–particularly Waylon–may have felt bound by. Once an artist begins leaning too heavily on an image or a myth there’s trouble ahead.
MT: Where do artists like Hank Williams, Jr. and Charlie Daniels fit into the picture?
MS: I think both have prospered in afterglow of the outlaw movement. In the wake of Waylon and Willie, the outlaw archetype established itself in country music. In the attitudes they communicate and their dress, they are recalling a 1970s outlaw spirit.
MT: How much of what is going on in Country music today – the targeting of a younger, maybe Rock oriented audience, the more Rock related sound – can be attributed to what the Outlaw movement brought to Country music?
MS: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the recording industry realized country music could stir a rock audience. Johnny Cash did it and then Waylon and Willie did it. Ever since then, Nashville has happily extended a handshake to rock and roll. When Kid Rock can appear with country music artists in country music settings and nobody blinks, you know that Waylon and Willie’s influence is at work.
MT: What are you currently working on?
MS: I’m batting around some ideas at the moment.
MT: Can you recommend dome of your favorite music tomes?
MS: Quick top five:
1) Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians by Peter Guralnick
2) Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity by Alton Delmore
3) Beale Black and Blue by Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall
4) Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu
5) In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music by Nicholas Dawidoff