A Q&A With John Spong

The senior editor on writing about outlaw country, hearing Jerry Jeff Walker tell stories, and listening to good music.
A Q&A With John Spong
Senior editor John Spong

In the late sixties, country music was defined by the glossy looks and sounds of Glen Campbell and Tammy Wynette. That’s the way Nashville wanted it. Dictated it. But in many places around the country, the counterculture had become popular culture—love was free, songs were psychedelic, skirts were short, and hair was long. And somehow, at no certain time in 1972, Austin became the place where it all came together, where redneck rock, or outlaw country as it eventually became known, was born. For this month’s issue, senior editor John Spong interviewed many of the artists who made it happen, from Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker to Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver, and weaved together their anecdotes and observations into a captivating oral history. Here’s the story behind the story.

Much has been written about outlaw country over the years, including stories in the pages of TEXAS MONTHLY. Why cover this topic again?
The piece satisfied the first rule of writing about history for a magazine: find an anniversary ending in a “5” or a “0.” Since this was the fortieth anniversary of that first, ill-fated outdoor country festival that grew into Willie’s now-famous Fourth of July Picnics, we had that covered.

What prompted you to do an oral history? And how difficult was it to get people to talk?
Part of the reasoning actually plays off your first question. We’d written about some of this stuff before, but we’d never done it as an oral history. That gives a new look. And this was a perfect topic to do in that fashion. These folks are professional storytellers. Getting their versions of the events in their own words was going to be far more entertaining than anything I would have written about it. And they seemed to really enjoy walking me through their recollections.

Have you ever done an oral history? If so, how was this piece similar or different?
I’ve done a couple, one on the making of Dazed and Confused, and one on the making of Lonesome Dove. But this one was tougher. The scope was bigger in almost every sense, meaning geography, the window of time depicted, and the number of significant participants. Right up until we went to press I was still thinking of people I wished I could have talked to.

Surely, you had massive amounts of interview material. Walk us through the process of stringing together quotes to make a story.
In the big picture sense, this story was easy. It needed to be told chronologically. But once you move from the forest to the individual trees, things get harder. Obviously there was going to be a lot of Willie in the piece. But this wasn’t a Willie story, and he wasn’t the only person in Austin back then. So we needed to get a sizable amount of Murphey and Jerry Jeff in there, and the sensible way to do that was to talk about the big records they made. That’s why, for instance, ¡Viva Terlingua! gets its own section. But we also needed to discuss some of the guys who might not be as familiar to people now,

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