Licensed Outlaws

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“[Y]ou know, Bluegrass is always held to be like this sacred purity of country music and roots — and it is, for sure — but Bill fielded the question of whether he thought Elvis had ruined his bluegrass. This was from a journalist who was holding Bill in very high esteem, and he said, ‘Mr. Monroe, do you think Elvis ruined your song, Blue Moon of Kentucky?’ “And Bill said, ‘No sir, them were powerful checks.’” — Peter Rowan, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Nov 24, 2010

In Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and The Renegades of Nashville, Michael Streissguth is on the authenticity trail. He wants to find it in the guise of the country-music “Outlaw.” Specifically, he wants to track “the outlaw paths of Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson], and Kris [Kristofferson] from their arrival in Nashville in the 1960s up through the 1970s, the decade of the outlaw movement.”

Setting aside for a moment that the outlaw “movement” these singers and others were purportedly part of was largely a mid-70s marketing niche, Streissguth strains to position this movement as the outgrowth of a coherent artistic stance. And he doesn’t stop there. He stretches this argument even further in arguing that the “Outlaw Movement” was of a piece with other significant cultural movements of those decades. Specifically, he wants to examine the way his title characters and a handful of others “have in common their coming of age against the canvas of Nashville’s wildly clashing notions about race, education, lifestyle, urban renewal, war, gender, corporate influence, and government interference, [phew!] which sorted the outlaws — musical and otherwise — from the accommodationists.” That “otherwise” lands Streissguth deep in the weeds.

Let’s take a look. Watch how Streissguth stretches a baggy-but-workable definition of Texas music into the type of hopeless argumentative overreach that characterizes much of his book:

“Indeed, the Texas brand of country music traditionally blended honky-tonk, western swing, and the blues, and was now adding rock elements and ethos,” he writes. That’s accurate, if anodyne, but the sentence is not over. These elements were added, Streissguth claims, “in a way that recalled favorite son Lyndon B. Johnson’s pragmatic negotiations with black America’s inevitable push for civil rights.”

We might let this pass as clumsy period-setting, a ham-handed attempt to evoke the musicians’ milieu, but it’s worse than that. The passage purports to describe Texas music at the time Willie Nelson left Nashville to return to his home state, in 1970. As an evocation of the period, the sentence fails: In 1970, the out-to-pasture LBJ was no one’s favorite, and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts were five and six years old, respectively. The musical analysis is broad. So the honky-tonk, western swing blues blend was “now adding rock elements and ethos?” Whose elements? Buddy Holly’s? Led Zeppelin’s? What did this new amalgam sound like? Even if we grant, as sociocultural criticism, for argument’s sake, that there was something both “pragmatic” and “inevitable” about Texas music’s absorption of rock’s “elements and ethos”, it is not at all clear in what “way” this was like the Voting Rights Act.(Also, who in this scenario is Texas music’s LBJ? Willie Nelson? Actually, I’d watch that movie.)

The notion that white musicians’ appropriation of rhythm and blues tropes is a kind of civil rights activism is one to which Streissguth seems curiously attached. The notion isn’t inarguable, but it does need to be argued. One can’t just assert it the way Streissguth does in an attempt to evoke the musical landscape Waylon Jennings faced as he started out in west Texas: “Rising stars Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins had integrated a world that Jim Crow laws couldn’t touch, incorporating elements of black rhythm and blues into their beloved hillbilly music.” That’s one reading. Cooption, thievery, artistic appropriation: the incorporation of rhythm and blues elements by Elvis and others into their own songs has been called many things. Seldom, if ever, has it been hailed as a form of activism.

A self-congratulatory capsule history of Nashville’s “outlaws” would sketch out a Texas invasion of the Nashville music establishment, wherein bearded, shabbily-dressed long-hairs showed up with guitars, scandalized clean-shaven Music Row executives, and liberated country music from its “Nashville Sound” prison of pop-radio-friendly orchestral arrangements. This return to authenticity by way of a back-to-the-roots insurgency against the current era’s chart-toppers is a perennial cycle in pop culture, but it’s especially persistent in country music. One of the genre’s great topics is nostalgia: Things Ain’t What They Used to Be. Nicely representative are these two lines (and the title) from Waylon Jennings’ “Bob Wills is Still the King”: “I can still remember the way things were back then/ In spite of all the hard times, I’d do it all again.” Things were hard, but also somehow better then. And, anyway, didn’t we have fun?

This self-mythologizing is integral to the genre. But the truth is of course more complicated, and it’s problematic for a historian to try to build his argument with these creative myths as his foundation. The main problem in this book is that Streissguth has appropriated his subjects’ tendency toward mythmaking. He makes claims for the music and the musicians that the facts cannot support. In the process he passes over a more interesting story.

Streissguth’s title characters are compelling. Waylon Jennings loved pinball, parties, and cocaine — not necessarily in that order. Willie Nelson, the clean-cut songwriter of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”, reinvented himself as America’s hirsute, road-loving, pot-smoking uncle. And Kris Kristofferson was a football-playing Rhodes Scholar and Air Force captain who turned down a faculty appointment at West Point for a series of odd jobs in Nashville and the chance to make it as a songwriter.

One of those jobs had Kristofferson flying a helicopter to shuttle workers onto and off of oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a story in Outlaw, Kristofferson wrote “Me and Bobby McGee” on one of these sojourns. But Streissguth renders the most famous Kristofferson helicopter story thusly: “And according to a story that [Johnny] Cash told, and would have to be dismissed as apocryphal if only Kristofferson himself hadn’t confirmed it in later years, the maverick songwriter rented a helicopter, landed it outside Cash’s home in Hendersonville, and delivered more demo tapes.”

That “more” is telling, as is the way Streissguth introduces the story. We have just been told that, while working as a janitor at Columbia, Kristofferson “had slipped demo tapes and lyrics sheets to Cash…” which is why the helicopter stunt had to involve the delivery of “more” tapes. This story hardly passes the smell test. Cash’s assertion would “have to be dismissed as apocryphal” if not for Kristofferson’s confirmation? According to the end notes, Streissguth interviewed Kristofferson at least twice for this book, but the “confirmation” is not sourced to one of these interviews — or to anything in particular.

Let me pose an alternate theory: Kristofferson, known around town as a talented songwriter desperate to be noticed (he’d given up a tenure-track job, for goodness’ sake), very well might have pressed a demo tape on Cash with one hand while holding a mop in the other. Let’s also stipulate that folks around town knew the Air Force vet sometimes took on piloting gigs for extra money — certainly an unusual odd job for an aspiring songwriter. Isn’t it just as likely that Cash — in mid-career, after the apogee of his fame in the late-60s/early-70s, before his Rick Rubin-produced resurgence in the 1990s — might have, with a storyteller’s exaggeration, braided together several of these strands and arrived at a pleasing tall tale that reflected well on both parties? Not only does this fable confirm Kristofferson as the plucky and imaginative iconoclast his fans want him to be, it cements Cash as the benevolent elder statesman of the Nashville establishment who both recognized talent when he heard it (he recorded dozens of Kristofferson’s songs) and was also pretty laid back about helicopter landing-skid marks in his yard. For Kristofferson, what is the margin in contradicting Cash’s story? A man who once quoted William Blake to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” is surely not above a little self-mythologizing. Not to mention that, in the song he wrote “about” Johnny Cash (I put “about in quotes here because Kristofferson has at various times also claimed to have written the song about Dennis Hopper and the session musician Donnie Fritts, among a slew of others.) “The Pilgrim/Chapter 33,” the title character is “a walking contradiction/partly truth and partly fiction.”

Cash looms over Outlaw. Streissguth’s previous book was Johnny Cash: The Biography (this reader would have preferred the indefinite article), so he knows what a complicated and compelling figure Cash is. But even in Streissguth’s amorphous formulation, Cash can’t be an “outlaw”. Well-established in Nashville by the time Kristofferson and the other title characters hit town, Cash — prison concerts notwithstanding — was at least as much an establishment figure as a countercultural one. After all, here we have a man who writes in his autobiography of how he was hanging out with Billy Graham in the wake of Watergate and they got the idea to place a consolatory call to Richard Nixon, who they figured would be feeling pretty low after his resignation.

Cash’s stance as an avatar of empathy — whether for beleaguered inmates or disgraced ex-Presidents — may be the most remarkable thing about him. Cash at his height was a sort of establishmentarian iconoclast. His ability to be all things to all people while seeming to remain his own man is almost perfectly distilled in this stage patter from a Madison Square Garden concert in December, 1969: (The album, Live at Madison Square Garden, wasn’t released until 2002.)

“Everywhere we go these days it seems like, that, all of a sudden, reporters and people that ask us questions, ask us questions about things that they didn’t used to ask. … [T]hey say things like, ‘how do you feel about the Vietnam situation, the war in Vietnam?’”

Translation: Your simple singer of songs has been forced to deal with the issues of this world.

“I’ll tell you exactly how I feel about it. This past January … we went to Long Binh Air Force Base near Saigon. And a reporter friend of mine asked, ‘That makes you a hawk, doesn’t it?’ “And I said, ‘No that don’t make me a hawk, no. No that don’t make me a hawk.’ But I said, ‘If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, and then you go into the wards and sing for ‘em and try do your best to cheer ‘em up, so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws.’”

A dove with claws! What a way to split the baby! Who can argue with a man of peace who’s not afraid to defend himself?

Another Clintonian rhetorical flourish from Cash can be found late in Outlaw, when Streissguth quotes the Man in Black on the 1976 election:

“Now, Jimmy Carter — some of those who say they’re voting for him are doing it because they believe what he believes. … and some of them are voting for him because he believes in something. Whether they do or not they’re voting for him because he believes in something.”

This is non-endorsement dressed up as conviction, but Streissguth deploys the quote as evidence that “Nashville had found its alternative to Richard Nixon.” Once again, Streissguth’s straining for a clear narrative line leads him to simplify — and render less interesting — a complicated story.

“Johnny Cash forced change on country music,” Streissguth writes. This is true, but it’s not quite the kind of change Streissguth has set out to explore in this book. Cash was more of an influence on the subjects of Outlaws than he was one of them. Yet Streissguth wants to draw on Cash’s cultural influence in order to make his brief for this book, which is why he spends a good bit of effort telling readers about “The Johnny Cash Show.”

On this primetime variety hour that premiered on ABC in 1969, Cash hosted not just country-music luminaries but Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell (both on the show’s debut episode), Neil Young and Louis Armstrong. This eclecticism helped reinforce Cash’s reputation as his own man, musically. Here’s what Streissguth says it did: “In effect, Cash and his TV show had joined the civil rights heroes of earlier in the decade in communicating to America that the 1960s lived in Nashville.” Streissguth foreshadows this breathtaking equivalence earlier in the book when he calls Diane Nash and John Lewis — organizers of Nashville’s lunch-counter sit-ins, founders of SNCC, icons of the civil rights movement — “the city’s first outlaws.” Streissguth doesn’t qualify this claim, he doubles down on it: “…Nashville had exported to America the integration of public accommodations … and The Johnny Cash Show. And that had to be worth something.”

I suppose it depends on who’s doing the accounting.

Speaking of accounting, one thing that’s so often missing in music writing is the notion of musicians not only as artists but as businessmen, casting about for a hit, trying to make money. Mammon and The Muses are ever at odds. This notion of artistic authenticity as necessarily separate from commercial concerns leads us too often to a Scooby-Doo version of cultural production. In that story we have Chet Atkins, scandalized by the long hair of Willie, Waylon and Kris, standing in the wings at the Grand Ole Opry, shaking his first at “those darn outlaws.”

Atkins is the legendary country guitarist who eventually rose to the head of RCA-Nashville and whom Streissguth strains to cast as the villain in this story. Willie Nelson was unhappy with the way RCA promoted his records (are artists ever happy with their label’s support?), so he left. Meanwhile Atkins and Waylon Jennings had fights over various aspects of creative control — would Waylon get to use his band, or did he have to use the RCA session players?

It’s OK to stifle a yawn at this point. This sort of recording minutiae is not that interesting even to many of us rabid Waylon fans. But this also seriously undercuts the book’s argument. If this is what the “renegades of Nashville” were fighting against, it trivializes the civil rights comparisons Streissguth has been making.

It wasn’t that Atkins and his cronies just hated those long-hairs with their irreverent lyrics, it’s that they had a good idea of what had been working — the big pop-string arrangements of the Nashville Sound — and wanted to deliver more of the same. That was the job.

The singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell told Streissguth as much. When he first came to town Crowell was signed to a publishing company that Atkins co-owned, “[a]nd I think it probably was just that Kristofferson had made it,” Crowell said “so that Harry Warner and Jerry Reed and [emphasis his] Chet Atkins recognized that ‘this kid, he’s got some of that.’ … They scratched their chins and were like, ‘Oh, okay, I don’t get it, but keep the songs coming. Show up every once in a while.’”

This is exactly right. Atkins and co. were not fusty old stuffed shirts, bristling at the new stuff, unwilling to have their minds blown. They just didn’t think they could sell the new stuff. But, like A&R men everywhere, once something got through, they started looking for copycats. Once the suits were convinced the stuff would sell they were on board, and not subtly. Witness “Wanted! The Outlaws,” a 1976 RCA concoction that threw together recordings by Waylon, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter, along with some old Willie Nelson tunes the studio still owned. Damn! This “movement” instigated by the “renegades of Nashville” co-opted by the man? Streissguth is nonplussed. He tells us that Waylon “had always known that even the outlaw bit was nothing more than another way to sell country music and soon it would be replaced by another hook.” This assertion, coming late in the narrative, prompts a number of existential questions in the reader, not least of which is “Why am I here at the end of this book?”

The thing is, there’s an interesting story in the material Streissguth has amassed, including his interviews with the clear-eyed Crowell and some acute and prescient observations from the art critic Dave Hickey, whose 1974 Country Music article “In Defense of the Telecaster Cowboy Outlaws” was influential in naming the genre.

Streissguth sometimes acknowledges that the history he’s telling is mined with myth and legend and just-so stories, but he doesn’t do anything with that knowledge. Instead we get empty assertions such as “[y]outh culture was afoot in the western world and Kris symbolized Nashville’s contribution to it.”

A more interesting book would have interrogated these myths, placing into direct conversation the sentiments Streissguth uses as epigraphs to successive chapters. The first is from singer-songwriter Mickey Newbury: “Nashville’s a great place to be right now — like Paris in the twenties — a place where you can get together with people and rap.” The second is from the Jewish country singer-cum-mystery-novelist-cum-Texas-gubernatorial-candidate Kinky Friedman — who, with his songs “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Rapid City, South Dakota” (which he described as the only pro-choice country song), actually was a Nashville outsider, one whose songs were never played on country radio.

Anyway, Kinky said: “Paris of the thirties my ass, it was one big con.”

 

 

Photo: “David” by SandyJo Kelly, licensed under CC BY 2.0