In 1995, Waylon Jennings said of country music’s conformity, “It’s all vanilla as far as I’m concerned”. But what else can you expect from an Outlaw—a guy who pulled a pistol on a studio producer to protest a lack of artistic control? Jennings, who died last year at the age of 64, was one of the original Outlaws, leaving Nashville to regain control of his music and career as country increasingly embraced pop music and a corporate mentality that was unwilling to support artistic experimentation. (Alas, things haven’t changed much in Music City.) In 2001, after being elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, Jennings chose not to attend the ceremony.
With his rock-influenced country style, Jennings has sold over 40 million records and singles worldwide, recorded 16 #1 country hits, and won two Grammies. As Bill C. Malone, author of Country Music USA, the definitive history of the genre, has written, “Jennings’ voice was a richly textured and well-balanced mixture of masculinity, sensuality, and mournfulness—there has been no better singer in country music”.
Certainly that all adds up to a musician worthy of a tribute album, but these records are tricky things, a careful balance of acknowledging the original without replicating it. And when you’ve got a distinctive artist like Waylon Jennings . . . Well, there you go. Besides, we’re talking about Waylon Jennings here, so conservatism is out of the question.
Executive producers Chuck Mead and Dave Roe of last year’s Dressed In Black: A Tribute To Johnny Cash accept the challenge with A Tribute to Waylon Jennings: Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, an album of 15 Jennings tunes, both well known and obscure. The roster of performers is varied: Everyone from the Crickets to alt.country artists like Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, and Alejandro Escovedo to punks John Doe and Henry Rollins.
But all the players are outside mainstream country, and overall, Lonesome, On’ry and Mean lives up to the tribute challenge.
Some tracks are fairly straightforward, say Guy Clark’s “Good Hearted Woman”, Dave Alvin’s “Amanda”, Carlene Carter’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy”, and Radney Foster and Dave Creager’s “Lukenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”. They’re solid covers, nothing too revolutionary but a thoughtful merging of the singer’s style with Jennings’.
Other tracks show a more innovative blending of artist and song—take, for example, Nanci Griffith’s “You Asked Me To”, with enough banjo to harken back to her early work on Once In A Very Blue Moon and Last Of The True Believers. Norah Jones gives “Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get over You)” her trademark jazz revision as she has with other country covers like “Cold, Cold Heart”, and Alejandro Escovedo, ever the consummate musician, delivers an inspired treatment of “Lock, Stock and Teardrops”.
Of special note here is Robert Earl Keen’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, a masterful blend of guitar riffs that echo Jennings’ original set against a frenzied drumbeat that gives the song an air of near-unreality. Keen’s opening vocal, computerized, sets the mood, and his negotiation is fascinating, both acknowledging the original and revising it to reflect the current state of country music. Keen’s computerized voice, reciting, “Somebody told me when I came to Nashville / Son, You’ve finally got it made” is a sharp commentary on the country music industry that still discourages artistic freedom in favor of moving units. Completing the piece is a subtextual commentary on life in Nashville, a town that never embraced Keen who went on to make his career on his own terms in Bandera, Texas.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean also considers all phases of Jennings’ career with the Crickets adding “Waymore’s Blues” and Junior Brown’s “Nashville Rebel”, the title track from a 1966 B-movie of the same name in which Jennings played the lead. Fellow Highwayman Kris Kristofferson does an eerie rendition of “I Do Believe”, one of the last songs Jennings wrote. Too, Allison Moorer contributes her cover of Jessi Colter’s “Storms Never Last”.
Henry Rollins closes the tribute with the title track, a version here that sets Rollins’ punk voice and style against a country-rock backbeat with mixed results.
One shortfall of the album is its dearth of material penned by Jennings himself: Of the 15 tracks on Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, only six were written or co-written by Jennings.
But in the end, the end, there’s little vanilla here. Instead, the listener is treated to a veritable super-market freezer full of Ben and Jerry’s before the weekend rush has taken the good flavors.
Simply put: This is a tribute album fitting of Waylon Jennings.