Although this compilation is named The Lost Nashville Sessions, calling these recordings “lost” is somewhat disingenuous, as they were originally recorded as part of a U.S. military recruitment radio program that was then pressed and sent as a promo to some 2,000 radio stations. Furthermore, the original recordings (done at guitarist Scotty Moore’s Music City Recorders in July of 1970) were far more stripped down than those presented here. Having come across the masters to this and a number of other similar sessions, Country Rewind Records head Thomas Gramuglia set about not only restoring, but essentially re-recording these tracks with modern instrumentation, copping the original vocal tracks and placing them in a modernized context.
This begs the question as to whether or not it is an accurate representation of Jennings himself, as he, in a sense, had nothing to do with their recording. Sure, the overdub sessions were helmed by Jennings’ longtime steel guitarist, Robby Turner, but there are too many overly processed modern touches for this to sound like a true Waylon Jennings album. Of course, there is also his inimitable baritone and Outlaw Country swagger, but paired with synthesized strings (such as on “Green River” and the gaudy, muzak-level effect on “MacArthur Park”), over-produced backing vocals (too many to mention), and a number of other overly-modern embellishments (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), the album sounds most like some strange amalgam of mid-‘80s country (thin, plastic-sounding production and all).
Given the fact we have entered an era in which long-dead performers “return” to the stage in the form of holograms and the spectral voices captured on crude demos are given a contemporary overhaul, one begins to wonder where we need to start drawing the line. Is a collection like The Lost Nashville Sessions truly representative of the artist and their aesthetic, or is it merely a nostalgia piece produced in order to cash in on the legacy of a deceased musician? It’s a strange ethical dilemma because, ostensibly, recordings like these are created with the best of intentions and generally strive to keep with the artist’s original sound. But the bottom line is that it is not the original artist, regardless of how it is presented.
As with so many things in pop music, this advancement in how music is created, perceived, and performed can be traced back to the Beatles. Beginning with their eerie repurposing of several home-recorded demos by the late John Lennon and essentially becoming a misappropriation of the past, the remaining members of the band added their own imprimatur in an attempt to create several “new” Beatles songs to go along with the Anthology series of the early ‘90s. From there, “new” songs began appearing from scores of deceased artists, with the pinnacle of the phenomena coming with the arrival of Tupac’s hologram at the 2012 Coachella Music Festival.
Getting back to Jennings, these particular recordings, while often true to the embryonic Outlaw Country persona in place at the time of these original performances, feature too many instances of modern production tricks and instrumentation to be thought of in the context of the gritty, organic nature of the original Outlaw Country movement. In fact, much of the sound and production here is more representative of the Nashville system against which Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and others were rebelling. To gloss over this is a disservice to Jennings and company, as well as the roots-focused, raw, and gritty sound they perfected in the ‘70s. For instance, the aforementioned “Sunday Morning Coming Down” is a far cry from its Outlaw Country roots, thickly layered with sickly sweet backing vocals that threaten to overtake Jennings’ own voice on the chorus, hokey faux honky-tonk piano, and Turner’s own serpentine steel guitar lines.
While it’s certainly a thrill to hear Jennings at his vocal peak on “unreleased” recordings, the modern embellishments here more often than not prove to be too much. Gramuglia may well have been better off releasing the recordings as the originally existed, presented raw and without any 21st century tampering. As is, these represent something of a doctored history, representative of neither the past or present, existing in a strange sort of alternate musical universe. With that, it’s best to approach these as a supplement to Jennings’ recorded legacy rather than indicative of the work for which he is best remembered and celebrated.
As the first in a proposed series of collections from some of the biggest names in country music circa 1970, one would hope that future installments will see less tampering and more of a preservationist mentality. Let The Lost Nashville Sessions serve as a cautionary example of what can happen if music producers begin going the route of George Lucas. More often than not, it’s best to leave well enough alone and keep any sort of post-production tampering in the realm of the hobbyist.