I had the good fortune of attending a Waylon Jennings concert before he passed away. Sadly, this show took place toward the end of his career. So instead of coming off like the imposing figure he once was, Jennings was relegated to sitting on a stool and feebly performing along with his band. I’m not complaining; any Jennings show is better than nothing. I just wish I could have seen him at his best.
In contrast, this Austin City Limits performance from 1989 is a far better way to remember this great talent. He may not have gone by the title of “The Man in Black”, but he nevertheless fit that profile perfectly. Outfitted in a black hat and black jacket, Jenning’s rumbling voice was equally dark, like a large, thick cup of black coffee without even the hint of sugar or cream.
Even though he lived up to his musical outlaw image, Jennings was by no means a negative man. Both the patriotism and the devoted love expressed through “Amanda”, present positive sentiments. Jennings lived a hard life, where he struggled for a while with drugs. Yet somehow, hopeful messages ring truer when delivered by those that have seen both the good and bad sides of the tracks. If Jennings can find the bright side, then darn well anybody can.
Singing duets with his wife Jessi Colter was another way Jennings revealed his gentler side. Colter joins Jennings here for a version of the old Elvis hit, “Suspicious Minds”. This is a strange choice for a duet, because it’s uncomfortable to watch a married couple expressing their suspicions of infidelity on stage. These two pull it off, however, with a wink in their eyes. The pair also sings the old barroom standard “Honky Tonk Angels”.
Jennings may not have been any kind of a comedian, but he nevertheless had a good sense of humor. This side of his personality is expressed through “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”. The song is not only an ironic look at the inherent contradictions within the cowboy lifestyle, but Jennings takes a few moments during this performance to imitate his regular duet partner, Willie Nelson, via some distinctly nasal singing.
It’s still hard to believe that Jennings opened for Metallica not all that long ago. But it was probably his rebel image that initially attracted this metal band to that country man. Jennings might have ruffled a few mainstream country feathers with the company he kept, but he was undoubtedly a dedicated country musician. These feelings are best exemplified by “Bob Wills Is Still the King”, which praises the Western swing icon, and “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”, which compares Hank Williams’ pioneering country songs, with some of the not-so-great country tunes heard on the radio today.
Seeing Jennings performing live also highlights what a fine guitarist he was. He’s probably best known for that echoing twang he saturated his songs in, but he also had fleet fingers that could pull off some impressive riffs. Jennings is supported here by a skillful six-piece band, as well. He was never one to labor over fancy arrangements, but there’s a true beauty in simplicity, which is achieved again and again during this concert performance.
New West Records is doing a wonderful thing in releasing some of the best Austin City Limits performances on DVD. Even if you didn’t get to see Waylon Jennings in person, this disc — along with its 5.1 surround sound — is the next best thing to having been there.