Michael Streissguth, born and raised in Washington D.C., is no stranger to Nashville. He has spent inordinate amounts of time there while writing and researching many of his projects. But he didn’t fall into place as the most prominent writer in the country music scene today by accident. With seven highly respected books on icons such as Johnny Cash and Roseanne Cash and now, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson (Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville) out on the market, his voice and views, at least to insiders of the scene, have become as recognizable as some of the musicians he writes about.
One of the reasons he’s gravitated towards Nashville and country music, even from his childhood, is because of the stories told through the lyrics. “When there’s an interesting story behind the song or artist, I want to learn more,” he says. “Writing about country music has helped me get to know American history and American culture much better…country music is an avenue to the story behind the music and the musicians.”
Although his previous biographies and tales of the industry are informative and highly entertaining, they’ve never delved into the story behind the story of his subjects like Outlaw does. This is not just a glimpse into their music; this is a historical look at how Nashville went from being a musical epicenter to a cultural and racial war zone. Told through the ill- and well-fated timing of Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson’s arrival and roles as renegades of the scene, Outlaw is not your song and dance biography plucked from the lives of iconic artists. There’s a collective voice between all of the stories that lends readers a glimpse into this riotous time in music and American history. “Outlaw wasn’t about just about the musicians, it was about the cultural outlaws and how the music world in Nashville dealt with all of the racial and political issues that went down,” Streissguth says. “Nashville became much more than just the machine behind the country music. There was another story there. I had to explore the connection between the unknown side of Nashville and Waylon, Willie, and Kris.”
Unrelenting in its ways, Nashville is often thought of as just a “Southern town,” as Streissguth puts it. He readily admits that he’s been guilty of typecasting this town. “I wanted to look at the outlaw phenomenon as it existed in Nashville,” he says. “There’s a Southern stereotype that’s attached to the city and I felt there was more ferment than most people give the city credit for. It was as if there was an outlaw template that had already been established and Waylon, Willie, and Kris came along and fit right into it.”
Outlaws or not, these men had a profound effect on how the leaders of Nashville strategized to win the good fight. And although it worked to an extent, these leaders had the foresight to know, as most southerners know, politics aren’t just swayed by sweet tea and good manners; they’re swayed by who has influence on those with money. And as Streissguth found out, when in Nashville you play by the rules of the music industry. Those with the most influence were the owners of studios, managers of recording artists and those that sang and had even bigger egos than the rest. Leaders of the different movements took their chances by foregoing the typical dogmatic ploys by employing the city’s cultural and musical icons as leaders despite their “outlaw” and “renegade” status.
To punctuate his point about this side of the story remaining somewhat untold, Streissguth paused in the interview at the very end and confessed, “I’ve been going to Nashville to write about Nashville people since the mid-‘90s. Yet I’d never heard anything about the civil rights movement and the other ferment we’re talking about. I said to myself, ‘I’ve been missing out on something. How can it be that I’ve done all this work but somehow conversations I’ve had never led me to these rich activities that were happening?’ And whether country music wants there to be a connection to the civil rights movement or not, there is one. These men were a huge part of it.”
Cicily Janus is a writer, back-seat driver, and music director. She spends her free time making Spotify playlists, reading the Modern Love section of The New York Times and watching Law & Order reruns.
Right: Photograph of Michael Streissguth courtesy of the author.