These songs recreate the Hippie Masses of yore
This soundtrack to a 1996 episode of the Austin City Limits television program features four legendary musicians who came to define the outlaw country movement of the early ‘70s: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and Kris Kristofferson. Kimmie Rhodes, a relatively unknown Texas singer and songwriter who has been a feature of the Austin scene since the early ‘80s, also fully participates. The quintet swap songs, tell stories, and make each laugh like the old friends that they are. There’s something downright pleasant and wholesome about the whole thing. The amiable atmosphere may make the CD enjoyable to listen to, but this also has a downside. The artists take few risks. They rarely challenge each other, and there’s no edge. Outlaw country works best when performed with wild passion. Emotions are muted here.
The fact that all the musicians play acoustic guitars (no electric instruments at all) on every one of the 14 tracks also gives the disc a tame atmosphere. No one takes a frantic solo, or really adds much more than basic rhythm accompaniment to each other’s leads. The same can be said of the vocals. No one really reaches for a note—except for Kristofferson, who can’t help it because he has such a limited range—and the background singing consists of mostly plain harmonizing.
The musicians are soulful, literally speaking. At the heart of the show, they individually sing five self-penned songs with religious themes. Jennings starts things off with the earnest declaration “I Do Believe”, followed by Rhodes with the gentle and purty “Espiritu Santo Bay”. Shaver kicks the spirit up a notch with the feisty “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ”, but Nelson slows the pace down again with the dramatic “Too Sick to Pray”, while Kristofferson offers up the radical Christian lyrics of “The Pilgrim”. Taken as a whole, this material weighs down the album with a pious earnestness. When I was young, the one place an aspiring musician could play was church. The person would bring a guitar to service or Sunday School and perform at what was jokingly called “Hippie Mass”. These songs recreate the Hippie Masses of yore and by and large, that’s not a good thing. Whatever individual merits the songs may have get lost in the morass of solemn spirituality.
Oh sure, there are some good cuts on the disc. Musicians of this high caliber always have something to offer. Shaver’s solo voice without any instrumental or vocal accompaniment on the poetic “First and Last Time” possesses a simple grace. Shaver sings only two songs on the record, which is a shame, as he gives the best performances here. Jennings delivers a lovely rendition of his ode to familial romance, “Just Watch Your Mama and Me”, and Nelson revs up the tempo to a martial beat on the proud “We Don’t Run”. None of the other cuts are bad; they just blend together, except for maybe Kristofferson’s vocals. His singing is distinctive, but not in a good way. Kristofferson is aware of his limitations, so he doesn’t do anything really outrageous here. But that’s kind of a shame because maybe he would have loosened the other musicians up. Maybe they would have heard Kristofferson’s voice crackle and crack and figure, what the hey, and go for it.
Instead, these five outlaw country artists seem more like gentleman (and a fair maiden)—the type of people one would invite home for tea and biscuits. They seem to belong in your living room, which is exactly where they would be for many viewers, as this was originally created for television. Outlaw country music deserves a more riotous setting.