With baseball season over and -- who knows what will happen in the future with the Nashville Outlaws? -- I thought I'd share this piece I wrote for their inaugural season, 2010, in which I was asked by then-club honcho Jason Bennett to talk about the Outlaws who inspired the name, men I knew and loved or still know and love. This was in the ballclub's old program, but I thought it was pretty darned good. Maybe you'd enjoy reading it. Thanks. By the way, I love baseball. But I love Midnight, Tompall, Bare, Willie, Billy Joe and Waylon, "my" Outlaws and friends a helluva lot more.
The guy who started Nashville’s Outlaws movement with a tear-jerking duet with his son laughs when asked what the connection might be between those musicians of the 1970s and the new Prospect League baseball club which is borrowing that name.
”I guess the way the music business correlates with baseball is, well: Do what you do and do it as good as you can,” says Bobby Bare. “Let the scoreboard tell you how well you did. Our scoreboard is always the charts and how many you sell.”
The Nashville Outlaws ballclub will be keeping track of how well they do this summer by watching the scoreboard at Vanderbilt University’s Hawkins Field.
Outlaws co-founders Brandon Vonderharr (general manager), Jason Bennett (vice president) and Chris Snyder (also vice president) – whose friendship was formed during a decade spent in Nashville’s professional baseball world -- deliberately chose the club’s name out of reverence for that most irreverent and loosely allied group of music-makers and windmill tilters.
“We wanted to select a name that was reflective of Nashville’s music background and the guys that had a vision that made them find their own path, their own voice and along the way found a place with the public,” says Bennett, referring to the folks often referred to in shorthand as “Waylon and Willie and the Boys,” after a line in the movement’s most-iconic song.
It is a fitting symbolic affiliation for the ballclub comprised of college players who hope to follow Bare’s advice and hit, pitch, catch and run “as good as you can” to get noticed.
Perhaps they’ve got Big Apple pinstripe dreams. The most important way for a guy to get noticed in this league is with the crack of wooden bats on rawhide. This will be a new sensation for these young men, most of whom have spent their careers creating that heretical “ping” when contacting the ball with aluminum bats.
Like Bare and his cohorts, the team also will be swinging for mainstream acceptance.
One plus toward developing fan loyalty is the team makeup of scholarship players from Vanderbilt, Austin Peay, Belmont, Western Kentucky and hometown players attending college elsewhere.
“When you come to Hawkins Field to cheer for the Outlaws, you really will be cheering for the home team, for Nashville,” says Bennett, saying that is a difference this club has with the Class AAA Sounds, playing just blocks away. The Sounds are tied to a Major League club and their professional dreams are to at least get their cups of coffee in the Bigs. Perhaps they’ve already had that sip and are on their way back down. They don’t consider Nashville home. Former Sounds star Prince Fielder will forever be labeled a Milwaukee Brewer. Don Mattingly is remembered as a New York Yankee … Nashville was a rung on the ladder to the top, albeit one where people sure liked guitars.
And then there are the entertainment value and values.
The Outlaws’ premise is to offer low-cost -- $8 a ticket plus free parking – entertainment in a setting where families, Little Leaguers and church groups can get up close and personal to the action.
The hope is to change the way the game is perceived and appreciated in Nashville. “We are excited that we can provide a great alcohol-free environment that would be safe to bring your family to. It’s more of a wholesome environment where you don’t have to worry about who’s sitting behind your kids,” says Bennett.
The musical Outlaws founded their own loosely linked team in Bare’s Music Row office, a gathering place for dreamers, schemers, guitar-pickers, pinball players and knife throwers: Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, Captain Midnight, Billy Ray Reynolds and the lot.
Nashville treasure Hazel Smith -- writer, TV host, publicity producer and all-around sweetheart – actually gave the movement its name.
“I was doing mostly PR at Glaser Sound Studio, 916 19th Avenue South,” she says. “It was Waylon’s and Tompall’s office. It was like Bare’s in that inside those walls they could say what they wanted to do and do what they wanted to do.”
She was pressed to come up with a way to describe the music, so she reached for her blue Collegiate Edition of Webster’s Dictionary and began scouting out words.
“I looked up a lot of different names like Mustangs, and you know different things but nothing really fit the music they were doing. Then I came on ‘outlaws’ and it said ‘living on the outside of the written law.’
“I thought for a minute. They certainly are not doing music the way that Music Row is doing right now, so maybe that might fit,” she recalls, going through her thought process of settling on the musical moniker.
Romanticized history has it that the Outlaws movement was all about Nashville reclaiming its rootsy, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” heritage from the Countrypolitan strings, crooning and wall-of-sound style that reigned over the charts. Bare laughs at that notion.
“It didn’t have a helluva lot to do with anything except it was a bunch of free-spirited guys who didn’t care what anybody said. They just didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again.”
In Bare’s case, established record company wisdom would have him reprising his classic sounds, i.e. “Detroit City” or “500 Miles Away from Home.” He understood why the companies wanted more of the same: Who wouldn’t? How many “Detroit City”-quality songs are on the charts nowadays?
Bare possessed neither temperament nor need to repeat himself. “I just was having some fun with new stuff.”
That new stuff that launched the Outlaws movement was Bare’s recording of a collection of songs penned by the late Shel Silverstein. Lullabys, Legends and Lies was filled with wit, heartache and story songs.
“Gather round fellows I'll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabys, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I'll sing about warm sunny skies
There's mermaids and beans and lovin' machines in my lullabys legends and lies….” goes the track introducing this double-vinyl-disc song cycle. (It is available on remastered CD and is an essential element of any music collection.)
“I produced it and nobody knew what I was doing,” Bare recalls. The record company was expecting something like Ride Me Down Easy – his previous effort.
“When I got that project finished, everybody was happy knowing I wasn’t going to go nuts,” he says, with a laugh. So he got the go-ahead to proceed and “I immediately went nuts and worked with Shel” on Lullabys, Legends and Lies.
Bare says the record company was skeptical about releasing this aberration. But after a smuggled acetate of “Daddy, What If?” -- featuring Bare singing with his son, Bobby Jr. -- hit Atlanta’s air waves, RCA simply ignore what it had.
“Here was this cute little boy singing with his daddy. It heated up the radio big time.”
While the album is a monumental work, its true importance is that it opened the door for artist-produced albums out of Nashville. The first one to follow Bare’s efforts showed with a flourish that the floodgates were open.
“Waylon and I have always been really close,” reflects Bare. “He went to Chet (RCA honcho, guitar wizard and my late friend Chet Atkins) and said ‘Bare’s doing that. Let me do it, too.’
“Of course, they were really worried about what Waylon would do. But they let him, and he went ahead and produced Honky Tonk Heroes,” a collection written for the most part by fellow Texas renegade Billy Joe Shaver.
Suddenly, this “different’’ musical vision was corporate-approved, executives let their hair and beards grow, swapped polyester for denim and began counting money while cashing in on the Outlaws.
Ironically, the movement proved so successful that it helped pay for the glass corporate towers, banks and foreclosed office suites that have supplanted the rowdy rooming houses, honky-tonks and semi-derelict offices of the 1970s.
“It pretty much was a promotional gimmick,” says Bare, reflecting on the next big step. Wanted: The Outlaws was really just a sampler of music from Jennings, Willie Nelson (a former Bare roommate), Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife and a pop success for her “I’m not Lisa”) and Glaser. (When approached for this story, Glaser, though kind, politely said “I’m retired,” and set the phone down.)
The big-name Outlaws --Waylon and Willie – became country music’s Glimmer Twins, and they stormed the country, drawing rock fans into the world of steel and heartache. Their shows were loosely constructed and could include walk-ons by Cash, Charlie Daniels, Kris Kristofferson and country traditionalists like Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely.
Regardless of the stamp of corporate approval that “legalized” the Outlaws, they gained notoriety by dreaming their dreams and acting on them, creating a new, artist-centric version and vision.
The young men who comprise baseball’s Outlaws and the businessmen who are footing the per diem and expenses are similarly dreaming of gaining wider recognition. It’s not that they hope to topple the Sounds and Ozzie as that team builds toward a more big-time future. But they do hope to offer a fun alternative.
It should be emphasized again that the musical Outlaws’ game of choice wasn’t baseball, but pinball. And it wasn’t that flippers and flashers and sirens game played by The Who’s famous ”deaf, dumb and blind kid.”
This was serious, quarter-a-play stuff, in which you beat the sides of the machine to get the ball-bearings to line up, bingo style, with payoffs based on how many were lined up. Five in a row brought $100, if memory serves.
Bare says “Waylon, Tompall, Midnight, we all were addicted to them.” (Midnight was Roger Schutt, a wannabe songwriter, knife-tosser and oft-fired disc jockey who was a friend to everyone from Bare to Jennings to Roger Miller to Kinky Friedman to this writer … but that’s a story for another time.)
Of all the parallels between the base-running and bass-playing Outlaws, probably the most basic is that they share the philosophy of going against the grain to get back to the thing that’s most important: whether it’s a guitar line or a line drive.
Instead of going in a direction that takes them away from their roots, they are steering dead on toward that destination.
As Waylon sings in Luckenbach, Texas, the biggest-selling record of the Outlaws movement:
“There's only two things in life that make it worth livin'
That's guitars that tune good and firm feelin' women
I don't need my name in the marquee lights
I got my song and I got you with me tonight
Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love….”
In this case, it’s time we got back to the basics of baseball.
“It’s a grassroots movement,” says Outlaws VP Bennett. “There’s something to be said for being able to play and watch baseball in its purest form.”