Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel [DVD]

[1 March 2007]

By Leigh H. Edwards


As highlighted in this DVD release of videos meant to accompany the Nashville Rebel four CD box set, Waylon was one cool, savvy performer. On 20 different selections here (mostly performances on TV shows but also in three music videos), one of country music’s original Outlaws shines.

Jennings is infamous for bucking the Nashville establishment in the ‘70s and, along with wife Jessi Colter and fellow Texas innovator Willie Nelson, mounting the Outlaw movement. That movement was as much about creative control of his own records as it was about the right to make music that strayed from the Nashville formula—from picking up a rock beat when the artist wanted to, to including minor chords, edgy lyrics, and an unbridled sensibility.

The movement hit big with the 1976 release of the album Wanted: The Outlaws, with recordings by Waylon, Willie, Jessi, and Tompall Glaser, which became a long-time chart-topper on country as well as pop lists. A country superstar who died in 2002, Jennings’s considerable successes included hits like “Good Hearted Woman”, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, and the “Theme from The Dukes of Hazzard” (along with his memorable turn as the balladeer narrating the series).

On this collection, Jennings’s individuality as a performer is particularly compelling. The first performance is from his ‘70 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, where he jokes around with his pal and former roomie. Cash proudly announces that Waylon had won the Grammy in 1969 for Best Country Performance, with the Kimberleys, on “MacArthur Park”.

As Jennings sits there with his wily pompadour and Cash sporting a similarly long hair-do, they tease each other and reminisce briefly about old times. Cash cracks: “I sincerely thought that you never would amount to anything.” Jennings jokes that Cash could have had a career as a cook if this music thing hadn’t worked out, laughing: “Can you imagine Johnny Cash in a black suit with bacon and powder all the way down and gravy in your hair”, while Cash replies: “I’m a good cook, you didn’t do nuthin’”, and Jennings protests: “I called June to clean up the room.” Their easy banter establishes their comfortable, down-home stage personas—folksy but with a dangerous streak. Jennings breaks into his version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”, featuring Colter on keyboards.

Seeming to never take any situation too seriously, Jennings consistently carried his conversational, raconteur tone into his music. The next four song performances are from a 1974 appearance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert show. The jump to an older Waylon is striking here, because he has ditched the clean-cut pompadour look for his signature disheveled shag of long hair, bangs, moustache and beard, with a hard-drinking look in his eyes. His band, the Waylors, are tight, and pedal steel guitar legend Ralph Mooney is especially impressive.

Waylon’s country rock goes low-fi on a series of numbers from the Cowboy Jack Clement TV Show. In footage from that same year shot by Waylon’s brother-in-law, well-known music producer Clement, we see Jennings in all his laid-back glory. In five numbers, including “Amanda”, “I’m a Ramblin’ Man”, and “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”, Jennings fires up his electric guitar, uses his rough voice to full effect, and generates a honky-tonk party atmosphere, so much so that members of his entourage start dancing gleefully in the background.

The video here is poor quality—bad lighting and amateurish shots creating a thrown-together, almost home-movie style piece. But that dynamic adds to the intimacy of the performance and lets you almost feel that you’re along for the ride at a private party. We get a series of close-ups of his playful guitar solos on “I’m a Ramblin’ Man”. As he trades licks with Mooney, you get a sense of his respect for the music’s hillbilly roots as well as his dedication to innovations like bluesy rock techniques.

Both his humor and his bantering skills are on full display in the acoustic version of a song he wrote, “Waymore’s Blues”, which he sings to Colter and introduces by telling her that the song starts off being about legendary country pioneer and blues yodeler Jimmie Rodgers but that it ends up not making any sense. As he sings about hitting on women even after he’s got one, his cigarette stuck on the neck of his guitar, he sweetly tells her it’s just “poetic license”, while she laughs and chides him and sparks fly. After the song, Colter makes fun of him for his ramshackle composing technique.

The next group of five songs from a 1978 Opryland performance gives us the signature Waylon audiences came to expect, with “Good Hearted Woman” (co-written with Willie Nelson), as well as his Hank Williams Sr. tribute song, his version of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”, and his cover of Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country”.

His stage performances emphasize both his presence as an icon as well as his warmth and good ole boy attitude. These dynamics are less present in his music video outings, though they are still compelling. He co-wrote and recorded a Hank Sr. tribute with Hank Jr., and the video, included here, shows them swapping Hank stories as well as drinks in a bar. Most interesting is the video for his 1984 hit “America”, which features lots of flag-waving, cowboys, and football games, but because the lyrics include lines about racial unity and the need for the US government to honor promises it made to Native Americans, the song itself is offering a more critical vision of patriotism.

Waylon’s legacy is all about the Outlaw image and the individualistic music, and both those dynamics are nicely showcased by a couple of TV commercials included on the DVD. Especially interesting is the RCA commercial for the Outlaws album, which begins with gunshot graphics writing out “Wanted” on a poster. While it is easy for that image to become clichéd (Jennings himself wrote the 1978 hit “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”), the musical adventurousness and charm behind the image is readily apparent here. Waylon’s a cult fave for the young, hipster country rock set, and it’s easy to see why: not just because his son Shooter is keeping his memory alive but also because the big daddy knew how to rock it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/waylon-jennings-nashville-rebel-dvd/