Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville By Michael Streissguth It Books, 304 pp., $26.
A recent Rolling Stone cover story on Johnny Depp was titled "An Outlaw Looks at 50." To what extent that a multimillionaire movie actor who won the genetic lottery could be viewed as an "outlaw" is highly debatable, but it points to just how diluted the term has become to encompass any practitioner of any art from who is a bit "outside the norm" (whatever that means), lives "by their own rules" (while still adhering to many), and is viewed as "unique" (despite similarities to others).
In the 1970's and '80s, "outlaw" country music was the catch-all phrase given to country music artists -- some of whom had been around for decades -- who embraced long hair, beards, drugs, a more rock and roll sound and attitude, and a rowdiness and rebelliousness that would have horrified Hank Snow or Roy Acuff, not to mention the thought of "country" artists on the same bill as acts like the Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead.
Streissguth's book charts the development, both musically and business-wise, that Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and the boys -- who in the book, also include David Allan Coe, Billy Joe Shaver, Kinky Friedman, Rodney Crowell, Johnny Cash, Tompall Glaser, and -- shook up in both Nashville and Austin, where the hippies and the rednecks would mingle together in places like the Armadillo World Headquarters to listen to music and not kill each other.
On one hand, Streissguth is ambitious in attempting a wide scope in taking on so many musicians and such a sea change in country music in one volume. And he does it well, combining both information already familiar to fans of the artists and interesting observations and fresher remembrances.
On the other, it can read like a short series of vignettes, jerking the reader across the narrative and the players too often.
Most interesting is the juxtaposition between Nelson and Jennings and their trajectories. Originally, it was Jennings who seemed to be Outlaw King, poised to be the de facto "leader" of the genre. But a crippling drug problem, orneriness and a tendency to shut himself off lead to the inevitable rise of his friend, rival and frequent duet partner -- with his much more easygoing persona, crossover appeal, and writing skill -- to become the face of the movement.
But as the author also points out, outlaw country music (much like Western lore itself), skittered into self-mythologizing, repetition and bandwagon-jumping. After all, Jennings had a hit in late 1978 with a wry tune called "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Gone Out of Hand?"
Still, "outlaw" country music has survived and thrived at that crossroads of country and rock today in artists like Hank III, Jamey Johnson, Jennings' own son Shooter, Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers Band, and others. But sorry, Toby Keith; an outlaw would not run his own chain of restaurants).
It also remains an overwhelmingly male genre. While female outlaws of the earlier generation like Jessi Colter, Sammi Smith and Tanya Tucker were lumped in by name only, today's crop including Gretchen Wilson, Miranda Lambert, and others (though none any more dangerous) are calling more of their own shots, career-wise. Many of these artists across the spectrum and year can be heard on SiriusXM radio's dedicated "Outlaw Country" channel.
One supposes that in terms of what country music was at the time - the lush strings, voices, suits, frilly dresses, and heartbreak of the "countrypolitan" sound, the outlaws were a genuine shot to the system for a newer generation of country-music listeners. And Outlaw brings all those bad boys (and girls) together in one volume.