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Book Review — ‘Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville’

The first time you heard that song, you were stunned.

You wanted to turn around and hear it again. Was the singer following you around? Did the writer peek into your heart? Because every word, every note mirrored how you felt, the hurts lived, the struggles endured.

To get that feeling, you just know that the songwriter had to go through that same pain. And in the new book “Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville ” by Michael Streissguth, you’ll see that each struggle was worth it.

Music executives and critics visiting Nashville in the 1960s found much to hate: the city banned sold-by-the-glass booze, rock & roll shows were attended by police, hillbillies were everywhere and so was segregation — though Nashville had a reputation for being progressive on race.

Willie Nelson came to Nashville in 1960 after ten years of odd jobs and Texas honky-tonks. He was a clean-cut guy then, and had some success as a songwriter for many major acts but he wanted to record his own music. He signed on with Monument Records, but when production slowed more than he liked, he left Monument and signed on with Chet Atkins and RCA — and fumbled.

Not long after Willie soft-landed onto the Nashville scene, Waylon Jennings came to Nashville against Willie’s advice. Though Willie told Waylon that the city would break his heart, Waylon quickly landed a gig at a club and was “king” in short order. He had a good reputation for music, money — and pills. He also had a stubborn streak, much to Chet Atkins’ chagrin when Waylon signed on at RCA.

In the summer of ‘65, Captain Kris Kristofferson, on his way to teach British literature at West Point, stopped in Nashville to meet with a music publisher. Kristofferson grew up in Brownsville, Texas, listening to the Grand Ole Opry, dreaming of joining Hank Williams onstage; though he was a Rhodes Scholar, Kristofferson was more comfortable writing like Williams than Wordsworth. Within days, West Point lost a teacher and Nashville gained a songwriter.

Years later, Willie left Nashville for Texas, but returned. Waylon married Jessi and reluctantly gained some Angels as bodyguards. Kris found Hollywood. And Chet Atkins had to step aside for the outlaws.

And I was torn about this book.

On one hand, “Outlaw” is filled with all kinds of names that only the biggest fans will recognize. Yes, the musicians you loved are mentioned here, but so are a lot of minor players from 30 and 40 years ago; people long gone.

And yet, I liked what I read. Author Michael Streissguth shares tidbits, tales and telling facts about the three main Outlaws who started a revolution and changed an American institution. This book is filled with I-didn’t-know-that moments and things you forgot, and that’s awfully fun to read.

I think that if you’re a casual country music fan, you can skip this book but if country is on your radio, iPod and lips, then you’ll want it. For you, enjoying “Outlaw” won’t be any struggle.

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“Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville ” by Michael Streissguth

c.2013, It Books, HarperCollins $26.99 / $28.99 Canada 304 pages

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