Neil Hamilton is the author of Outlaws Still at Large, a book that explores the roots of outlaw country as well as the modern incarnation of it. By phone, he discussed the process of writing the book, the common thread of the subjects of the book, and where the outlaw movement goes from here.
What compelled you to write the book?
I guess kind of the meeting of two developments. One was my love for the music. The other was the passing of my mom and the personal crisis I went through there. And really the desire to find some meaning for going on for another day. I started the pursuit of this music that I like. That’s it in general terms.
When I was searching for something to get me through another day, I started listening to outlaw country music. I had already been a fan of that music during the Waylon Jennings-Willie Nelson period. Then it kind of died away and I had not really been aware of the resurgence. I started listening to a couple different artists – especially Jackson Taylor. I said to my wife, “I like this guy’s music. I’d like to go hear him play.” He was playing in Houston, which is about a six- or seven-hour drive west of here. My wife’s sister lives there so we decided to drive out there and see his show. At the end of the show, I approached Jackson Taylor and asked him for a photograph to be taken by my wife of me and Jackson. My wife mentioned that I’m a history teacher at a college and write history books. He said, “I love history!” That led us to going to the back of the bar and just talking and exchaning phone numbers. The next day on my drive home, I received a call from him. He suggested that I write a history of outlaw country because nobdy had done it before. That led more directly to the book. Although it wasn’t going to be a complete history. It was going to be about my interactions with a number of artists.
How long did it take you to do the interviews and compile everything?
The whole thing from start to finish was about two years. That’s the traveling, the interviews, the transcribing, doing some research for the historical sections, and drinking whiskey.
What was the common thread among all the artists you interviewed?
The commitment to play the music they want to play regardless of whether it’s an audience of 50 or 50,000. I don’t think it made to much difference to them. I’m not trying to say that they didn’t want to make some money. They were more often likely to make the craft than to change it to widen the audience. That sincerity held them together whether they’re more rock-influenced our Hank Williams-influenced.
For lack of a better term, they’re all misfits. They didn’t want to be stuck in some Nashville writing gig.
They’re all critical with what’s happening on the Music Row scene – some more critical than others. You’re right. They did not want to be in that situation. They did not want to be creating pop music. I think another thing that bound them together whether they’re influenced more by Hank Williams or rock, they were all deeply schooled in traditional country. And they want to protect that and continue that influence.
The whole thing with Music Row is not new. How is Nashville different now than when the initial outlaw movement occurred?
I agree with you. Nashville wants to sell a lot of records. They’re not concerned with deviating from the roots of country if it makes them money. I think what’s a bit different is that the outlaw movement in the 70s gained enough of a foothold and a following that Nashville thought, “Maybe something is going on there where we can make some money.” People like Willie and Waylon were able to get onto the major record labels like RCA. The outlaw movement today is vibrant, but also very splintered. I think it’s just the nature of the times. We have so many sources. I think it’s hard for a couple alternative artists to gain the foothold that Willie and Waylon did back in the 70s. There’s so much more out there as far as musicians and outlets.
When I spoke to Billie Joe Shaver, I asked if he thought he would make it if he were starting in Nashville today. He said he didn’t think he would.
Again, I’m not trying to say they’re trying to live lives of poverty, but they’re not really hungry to make it in Nashville.
Who did you learn the most from when you were writing the book?
Musically, I learned the most from Jackson Taylor. He has so many different influences: Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, punk rockers, and it was early in the project when I spoke to him. He kind of showed me the ropes. I don’t know if he hrealized he was doing so, but he showed me the ropes. In terms of personality, I was drawn to Wayne Mills. He was a different guy in his compassion for others. He would do things for others before he’d do them for himself. He loved being in this book, and was concerned for its success, but not for Wayne Mills. He wanted it so it would help everyone.
Elizabeth Cook because of the experiences she had in losing her mom. It was a similar experience to what I had. I learned a lot from Dallas Moore about perseverance. He is constantly on the road and constantly working, and upbeat. I very seldom see him down. He’s always enthusiastic. His perseverance, energy, dedication, and optimism really impressed me.
Where does the outlaw movement go from here?
I was just thinking about that the other day. There are so many cross-currents at work. There are so many talented musicians out there that don’t want to be a part of the Nashville scene. I think there is a really good niche for outlaw that can be vibrant for many years to come. The problem is demographics. Outlaw plays largely to a white male audience. We have a population in this country that’s becoming more and more diverse. Outlaw is going to have to face that. That is an obstacle to widen the base. With all the outlets out there, it’s pretty vibrant. I don’t think it will ever supplant Nashville, but it can run parallel to Nashville.
Outlaws Still at Large is available everywhere.