For the past few editions of this series, we’ve taken a look at albums that stood as proud, personal artistic statements, before the album concept was truly fully realized (at least, consistently) in country music. This next edition, in a sense, brings the focus back around to what we started in the first edition through Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, as we take a look at an album that helped to spearhead an entire movement in country music … or do it on its own. It’s subject to interpretation. This still, however, much like previous editions, also stands as a personal artistic statement as well. With that said, onward!
Waylon Jennings’ story doesn’t start with outlaw country, and judging by his own comments over the years, he probably would have preferred if the term “outlaw” had never made its way into his story at all.
Of course, even those only a tad familiar with the greater country music story know why it did. Outlaw country is arguably the most celebrated movement in all of country music history, and also one of the most misunderstood – both by its supporters that celebrate it for the wrong reasons, and by its detractors that scrutinize it for all of the wrong reasons. Historians debate which song and album spearheaded the actual movement, but the core – the idea through which the movement operates – most definitely rests in Jennings’ dogged commitment to maintaining full creative control over his records. He himself didn’t care for the name – people called him that because of a song he cut in 1972, “Ladies Love Outlaws” – and would have preferred “hillbilly.” Cowboy. Or, as his friends referred to him, Hoss. He was the movement’s poster child, whether he liked it or not.
Even then, a further misunderstanding always unfolds when digging into Jennings as an artist and his work. For as fast as the world moves today – for as much as we’d love our favorite artists to disrupt old systems overnight just like that, in other words – change is still a slow-crawling goal. Jennings didn’t don his signature long hair and greasy look upon his arrival in Nashville, nor did he demand change and bust through its most sacred closed doors as a nobody.
Truth be told, prior to the ‘70s, Jennings fit comfortably within the system. A professional musician since the ‘50s and a popular country hitmaker starting in the ‘60s, Jennings got his start briefly playing in Buddy Holly’s band, a stint that ended when Holly was tragically killed in a plane crash (a flight that Jennings was supposed to be on but wasn’t; he gave his seat to the Big Bopper). When Jennings turned his sights toward country music, his sound had a thick, steady rhythm that reflected his rock ‘n’ roll background.
I guess it’s that, coupled with his uniquely thicker delivery evident by his Texas roots, which helped Jennings stand out from the crowd, even at a time when producer Chet Atkins had flooded the market with a very lush, orchestral, and too-often predictable-as-time-wore-on sound we know as simply “The Nashville Sound.”
Any album or press photo from the era will depict a much cleaner-cut Jennings, and his work from that era should not be viewed as lesser material (a personal favorite gem of mine is one called “Leavin’ Town”). No, if anything, that’s what adds weight to today’s story. Unlike his friend Willie Nelson, Jennings enjoyed consistent success in Nashville during the ‘60s as a solo artist. Between 1966 and 1973, he notched over 20 top 20 hits (his highest-charting hit, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” made it to No. 2). He won a Grammy and starred in a motion picture for the independent, but very successful, American International Pictures. He didn’t proclaim he was different from the pack just to sell records, because he really wasn’t.
However, much like his friend Nelson, Jennings had grown restless and tired of Nashville. In his case, tired of consistent success that offered little in the way of reward that could appease the soul. Nelson took off to find himself in Texas, but Jennings traveled to California to record an album, Singer of Sad Songs. That’s not the focus of today’s piece, nor is Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, the first album in which Waylon Jennings truly became “Waylon Jennings.” He had negotiated the rights to produce his own albums, pick his own songs, and use his touring band, the Waylors, in the studio. No string sections, background singers, or input from anyone else got in the way of its recording.
That, of course, finally brings us to today’s focus, an album that I find difficult to discuss outside of its historical context, truth be told. And that’s because it’s an album that comprises songs I’ve heard recorded elsewhere, time and time (and time) again. Yes, it’s because they’re all pretty exceptional, but it also has to do with that iconic black-and-white cover that stands for the album known as Honky Tonk Heroes. There’s Jennings, co-producer Tompall Glaser, and their rag-tag band of pickers drinking beer and having a good time at RCA’s sacred Nashville Sound studio. But also included is Billy Joe Shaver, a songwriter Jennings had previously met in Texas who vehemently tried to track him down to record one of his songs. Knowing Shaver, it might have taken a death threat or two (who can say for sure?), but Jennings ended up doing just that – recording a Shaver song. Well, songs, I should say; an album mostly full of them, actually.
In a sense, then, I get why this album has endured and is often hailed as Jennings’ best, even if I’d count ones like This Time and especially Dreaming My Dreams more as personal favorites that showcase Jennings’ ethos in its fullest form. But if there was an album that established the lyrical archetypes for which outlaw country music is most commonly associated with, it was this one. Honky Tonk Heroes is basically both Jennings and Shaver’s ode to the free-spirited cowboy and rambling man character – an antihero aware of his flaws who does little to change them, even as the ensuing consequences continuously eat away at what’s left of him.
That’s the important part. This isn’t music just to blast away to or set up power fantasies. This is music for the thinking person, where the vulnerability is just as essential of an ingredient as the swagger. It’s why for as much as I’m tempted to praise this album’s instrumentation and production for what it establishes, it’s really more about what it doesn’t do. It’s spare and it’s quintessential Jennings, where if the signature groove-driven backbeat isn’t defining the work, it’s tempered with just the right amount of reverb and bass to establish something murky, low-key, and warm as hell. It’s a restrained mix where the richness can certainly define it with the right amount of harmonica or fiddle thrown in every now and again. But it works better to get out of the way and let Jennings himself shine as an interpreter.
Of course, in a series that’s been full of paradoxes thus far, I’d be remiss not to mention the setup that establishes that. On paper, the opening title track is the familiar (and for Shaver, autobiographical) portrait of the self-deprecating screw-up fumbling his way through life and expressing regret without knowing how to proceed forward. It’s a melancholy we’ve indulged in countless times before, but it’s in the execution where it becomes an important step forward for both Jennings and country music. We have the opening bouncy, conversational rollick emblematic of an old Jimmie Rodgers tune, which then lets in a Bob Wills-esque fiddle lead, before switching gears and introducing Jennings’ signature backbeat, putting his own stamp on familiar tales and characters. And therein lies the paradox: it’s music that hearkens back to older country sounds, just with a fresher perspective.
Back to Jennings, however, it’s that full-throated tone that just commands the room, booming like it always had on record before, but with a bigger confidence that lends itself well to this album’s hooks, and to its lonely spirit. For as much as this album plays to its naturally sillier and rowdier tendencies in its stumbles, it’s always the softer, more vulnerable moments that connect me to Jenning’s natural magnetism. Like how the regret expressed in “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me)” feels sincere in being unable to rise above past regrets and mistakes, or least know where to start in moving forward. Or how he looks on with natural bemusement at the titular character in “Willie the Wandering G*psy and Me,” amazed by his friend’s roaming spirit while also knowing all of that rambling has to eventually lead somewhere. What’s the point otherwise, after all? These may be Shaver’s songs, but Jennings reminds us how lonely they really are.
But yes, there’s also the part of me that can appreciate livelier moments like “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and “Black Rose” at face value, where temptation and sin are painted with self-deprecated humor, because it’s not like it’s his first rodeo anyway. Even still, you need moments like “Low Down Freedom” or “Ride Me Down Easy” to anchor the greater stakes of regrets at hand (my favorite description of that depicting a “hobo with no stars in his crown” on the latter track), or have something to work toward in maintaining stablitity and finding happiness in the “I Walk the Line”-esque sentiment of “You Ask Me To,” where that huge hook almost feels cathartic in hanging on to someone who can set you straight.
And that brings us to “We Had It All,” the one song here not co-written by Shaver and the one that doesn’t fit the album sonically. It’s a polished string ballad where the reverb is thicker, but if anything, it only serves to highlight an earlier point. Fitting into a familiar system didn’t tarnish those early Jennings records; he just needed to find his own place within it. And while he ended up rising above it anyway, it’s a track like that which serves how much the power rests in Jennings’ huge, booming tone. For me, it’s possibly even the crown jewel, because it’s the moment where everything established prior on record comes crashing down and Jennings’ character has to finally face consequences of his actions – in this case, potentially losing out on the love and stability he thought he found on “You Asked Me To.” And the bigger dramatic focus in the string production only amplifies how great that loss is, where he knows he can’t go back and has to live with those mistakes and move on regardless.
And in that sense, if the production complements Jennings, Jennings in turn complements Shaver’s writing. Brilliantly philosophical in its emotional impact but simply plainspoken at its core, really; it’s Jennings who breathes life into these moments. Even still, hearing these songs covered elsewhere by other artists over the years (including by Shaver himself) has made this an odd album to revisit as it stands. It’s one where I’m tempted to say the power lies more in what it did for country music above all else … but I don’t know. Actually revisiting it reminded me of the true power it carries as an album, not just in what it stands for but in what it pieces together through the troubled troubadour we’ve all come to sympathize and emphasize with over and over again. It’s easy to see how it reshaped that perspective into something of its own and influenced the very bedrock of country music, and paved the way for so much more to come.
In keeping with the spirit of performers deemed as looking on the outside in yet keeping the spirit of country music well within their hearts, join me next time, where we’ll discuss Emmylou Harris and Pieces of the Sky.