Book review: Brian Fairbanks “Willie, Waylon, And The Boys: How Nashville Outsiders Changed Country Music Forever”

Hachette Books, 2024

On the face of it this book is essentially the story of how four “outsiders” (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), via their trials and tribulations (and, let’s admit it, success) eventually joined forces to form The Highwaymen, called here the first country supergroup, and their subsequent influence on the current wave of country outsiders.

Fairbanks opens with a brief prologue which deals with Jennings’ guilt over having reportedly said to Buddy Holly “I hope your plane crashes” after losing out on a seat to The Big Bopper on Holly’s fatal flight. Jennings then had to travel to their next gig in a freezing bus while Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens took off to that great gig in the sky. It’s a good tale but how relevant it is to the main deal here has to questioned, it’s certainly not the fulcrum the author intended.

There are potted histories of our four horsemen of the country apocalypse, laden with juicy anecdotes – many involving drugs, guns, wives and ex-wives, death and taxes – with Nelson and Jennings especially kicking against the Nashville straitjacket to become the outlaw country stars of the mid 1970s, their album ‘Wanted! The Outlaws’, featuring Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser becoming the first country album to be platinum-certified, reaching sales of one million. Amidst more anecdotal mayhem we head to the mid-1980s when all four are reliant on past glories but then re-ascend the heights when they formally form The Highwaymen who lasted (albeit shakily) for a decade. The final part of the book, while still featuring the main characters (spoiler alert, two of them die) speeds through the rise of alt/insurgent-country and brings us up to date with what Fairbanks calls “The New Highwaymen” – folk like Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton – along with numerous others who are acknowledged as highlighting minorities and diversity within the modern country/americana canon with special mention given to The Highwomen.

Overall it’s a rollicking good read (especially if you like tales about guns, drugs, ex-wives etc.) but for this reviewer it’s frustrating at times. Fairbanks is good when describing the hold folk like Chet Atkins had on Nashville and how it riled Nelson and Jennings but there’s no real critique of their outlaw albums (or indeed of many of the albums mentioned in the book). At times there’s confusion as characters appear with no introduction and little in the way of context. In addition, there seems to be little in the way of original source material. All of the book may have been meticulously researched but the notes at the end read like a Wikipedia entry with many of the sources being web pages. There is no bibliography and no index. There is a plus point for mentioning AUK on page 276, noting that we had acclaimed Jason Isbell’s ‘Southeastern’ the best americana album ever (although there’s no trace of us in the notes). Ultimately, given that our modern day outlaws are still fighting the Nashville establishment, one wonders whether the original Highwaymen did actually change country music forever.

About Paul Kerr 438 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments