Cowboy boots, bad boy stories, and crack musicianship dominate this installment of Austin City Limits. This DVD release features the “Outlaw Country” concert from 22 September, 1996. Instead of the edited 30-minute version aired on PBS, this is the full footage of this evening of song-swapping, story-telling, and leg-pulling. The longer cut highlights the familiarity and camaraderie that are distinctive to this historic group of musicians. And it also underscores the main theme of the concert: outlaws singing each other home to the bittersweet comforts of family. Along the way, it becomes clear how much the gathered pickers, singers, and songwriters are each other’s musical family.
In 14 numbers, each performer takes a turn as they swap songs around a semi-circle. Some are rollicking, in the vein of Waylon Jennings’s and Willie Nelson’s earlier signature outlaw country innovations. They were outlaws because they circumvented the Nashville music machine, using their own edgier sound and musicians. But the outlaw vibe is more muted here, as many of the songs swapped are acoustic ballads of lost love, found love, or religious confessionals.
The brotherly bond is obvious between Jennings, Nelson, and Kristofferson. That’s three-fourths of the country supergroup, The Highwaymen. Johnny Cash is not part of this concert, but his presence hangs over the proceedings. One feels his absence because you expect his voice to be there on the Highwaymen songs. While esteemed songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote several memorable songs for Cash, and singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes are there to fill out the group, it’s not quite the same, and the difference is palpable. As if to make up for the fact that Cash couldn’t be there that night, his comrades tell lots of stories about him, marking how he informed their collective sonic work.
When Nelson leads the assembled group in his song “We Don’t Run”, he introduces it by saying, “Remember when The Highwaymen were together [jovial laughter], we used to do this song.” Jennings and Kristofferson eagerly join in on the rollicking song featuring harmonica and a Nelson solo on his famously banged-up acoustic guitar. Afterwards, Kristofferson describes trying to play 12-string guitar and singing to accompany Nelson as the “definition of controlled chaos”. Here as on other songs in the concert, Nelson’s distinctive jazz inflections in his singing and guitar playing stand out compellingly—but can also give other musicians fits trying to meld in.
Jennings, usually the easy breezy jokester, keeps the references to their group musical bond going, and inflects it with deeper meaning, when he introduces his song, “I Do Believe”. A lilting, thoughtful ballad in which Jennings sings “In my own way, I’m a believer”, accompanying himself on his equally-famous electric guitar with the leather print (now played by his son, Shooter Jennings). In explaining the inspiration for the song, Jennings tells the story of a “bootleg preacher” and friend of The Highwaymen named Will Campbell who once asked him about his faith in response to Jennings asking him to explain Cash’s (a question to which Campbell responded that he didn’t know). Jennings sings movingly of his attempts to make his own peace with religious faith, in a voice that is authoritative and, as the genre demands, sincere.
The meditative songs about family include, perhaps most poignantly, Shaver’s plaintive ballad about his ex-wife, “First and Last Time”. Shaver tells the audience that the song is a true story about the wife he married and divorced twice. While Shaver’s voice can be weak and wavery, his song-writing is impeccable. He sings solo a cappella, with lyrics like “she didn’t love me” and when love leaves you, “you roll with the punches” and “cry when it’s gone”. The camera captures a shot of his son Eddy sitting behind him on stage, looking visibly moved, as does Nelson. His son later accompanies him, strumming a wicked slide guitar, on Shaver’s “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ”, his playful expression of his hard-won faith. Rhodes also makes it all in the family when she plays her song, “Lines”, accompanied by her son, Gabe, on guitar (and by some good old boy jokes from Jennings). Kristofferson (also known for his ragged voice but superstar songwriting) offers up a song “for my kids and their mamas”, “Promise”. and Jennings includes one joking song about a bad marriage, “I’d Have Been Out of Jail” (if he had just killed her instead of suffering through seven years with her), and a celebratory song about a good one (to fellow outlaw Jessi Coulter), “Just Watch Your Mama and Me”.
As if summing up the storied careers of the musical greats and mavericks up there with him, Kristofferson brings an added gravitas to all the talk of family and faith by going existential on “Pilgrim’s Progress”, a song he had recently written. He details his fraught and yet determined attempts to reach some form of enlightenment, and his smart, insightful lyrics are nicely paired with his piercing harmonica. The implication is that such a concert, the effort to share music with his fellow travelers and his appreciative Austin audience, is a key part of that painful, uncertain effort to reach insight and express meaning through the music.