“Outlaw,” The Story Behind the Song

When you start digging up your family tree, you are bound to find a few skeletons, and I did. A long-lost family secret was uncovered, so, it ended up in a song. In 2012, I had asked musicians Jon Conley, and Steve Bryant to help me write a song around “a groove.” They created a musical mood that seemed appropriate for an outlaw, but I didn’t have a lyric to go with the music. I didn’t even know any outlaw stories to get started. I was afraid to fake my way to an appropriate lyric. So we put the song idea on the shelf.

I was scrolling through Facebook about a year later and saw a post that caught my attention. There was a historical posting on the Byrdstown page that said Champ Ferguson had murdered one of my relatives on that date 150 years earlier. I knew about Champ. He was a real life outlaw, a notorious Civil War bushwhacker. He killed lots of people for revenge or for no apparent reason at all.

No one in my family had ever mentioned him killing one of our family members. I was intrigued and needed more information. I did extensive research on Champ and discovered he had killed at least six of my family members. Champ sought out known Unionists and would kill them in cold blood before they could defend themselves. He and his gang killed my great, great, great grandfather Squire James Zachary in an ambush. One Sunday morning before breakfast, Champ and his gang rode up to the Zachary house, north of Byrdstown. They found him unarmed in the apple orchard and opened fire on him. His wife, Cassandra, and children were at home and witnessed the murder. His son, Pierson, was ten years old. He was my great grandmother’s daddy, and I remember her well. She died when I was twelve, but she never told that story to me or to my mother.

Champ was not pardoned at the end of the Civil War, like other officers. Instead, he was arrested and put on trial for killing more than 50 people. In October 1865, he was convicted and hung at the state penitentiary in Nashville. The only other person convicted and executed for war crimes was the Andersonville Prison warden, Henry Wirz, who was responsible for starving around 13,000 captured Union soldiers.

Life in that border area was lawless. Most men were away at war. There were few leaders and no rule of law. The courts had been abandoned. The law of the gun was the only way to survive. Everyone who lived in the area between Albany, Kentucky and Sparta, Tennessee either loved or hated Champ. There was no middle ground, and he took advantage of the situation for his own personal gain. Because he played such an influential role in the Upper Cumberlands, he gets a song on my music project. Champ’s first wife, Eliza Smith, was my distant cousin. She and Champ’s infant son died in 1845 in an epidemic. Even after her death, the Smith’s seemed to still consider Champ a part of the family. He seems to have had a close kinship with them. I make this assumption because of his continued close relationship with Isaac Denton Smith, my 4th great grandfather, during the Civil War. Isaac was the uncle of Champ’s first wife.

In the end, Champ had no remorse for his actions. He only regretted that his wife and teenaged daughter would be adversely impacted after his death. That was his only saving grace. The musical bridge that Jon Conley created on the resonator is important. Jon, Steve and I consider it his musical prayer. Champ had a moment before his death to make all things right with his Maker. No one else was there. Like all condemned men, he came face to face with his fate before the hangman met him at the gallows.

The story of Champ and his brutal warpath across the North Cumberland counties became the obvious topic for the song that Jon and Steve and I set aside. I finally had all the information I needed to write lyrics about an outlaw. Jon, Steve and I knew this song was special when we built the track with just a bass line, a resonator, and some percussion. But after Jeff Taylor added his magic, the song became a soundtrack. Jeff’s talents as a producer are showcased especially in this song.

Musical credits for Outlaw:
Steve Bryant: bass & hand claps
Jon Conley: rhythm loop (filing cabinet, hand claps & resonator guitar)
Buddy Greene: harmonica
Shad Cobb: fiddle
Jeff Taylor: low whistle & accordion
Denise Reagan: vocals
Sierra Hull & Justin Moses: backing vocals

© 2103 Denise Reagan/Songs of Arabesque (ASCAP)
Jon Conley/Sweet Savannah Publishing (ASCAP)
Steve Bryant/Steve Bryant Songs (BMI)

Listen to “Outlaw” at this link now: https://open.spotify.com/track/6ejzYmW9nTIvqfdtE7Wjvc 

To read the stories behind all the songs on “Where Did the Time Go,” order the book on Amazon at this link: https://www.amazon.ca/Where-Did-Time-Go-Companion/dp/0692731318

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