Sharps & flats

When country got too slick, Waylon Jennings broke it down. Sound familiar?

Published June 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Waylon Jennings, after almost 15 years of recording, finally got a chance to produce one of his own albums, he plunked down a loaded pistol at the session and threatened to pop anyone who read his part off a chart instead of playing by feel. That's the story anyway. The albums that followed that session, "Ladies Love Outlaws" (1972) and "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" (1973), helped solidify Jennings' career in outlaw country, a long-legged movement that included himself, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.

Just as the rootsy country rock being made today by alternative country bands like Wilco and the Old 97's is a reaction to slick, contemporary country stars like Garth Brooks, the outlaw country movement was a response to "countrypolitan" and the slick, overproduced Nashville sound in the '60s and '70s that even managed to take the edge off guys like Johnny Cash. That sort of gloss had marred Jennings' "Love of the Common People" (1967), just rereleased by Buddha Records. The album was recorded at the start of his career, in the days when he shared a drug pad with Cash. Although Jennings had better musical taste than most country crooners, his producers added choirs of gooney male and female voices behind his reedy vocals, a dopey tradition that started with Chet Atkins and found its way onto Patsy Cline's records. The unspoken concept was that the white-bread voices and almost jazzy instrumentation gave country songs sophistication -- like, Hey! This isn't cracker music, it's orchestral!

By 1972, Jennings had grown out of that Nashville sound. He'd recorded a few songs by serious young writers like Kristofferson, begun building a tougher band and gained control of his recording sessions. Those factors allowed "Honky Tonk Heroes" (1973) to become the best country album made since Hank Williams took his last ride on New Year's Day 1953, and an album that, a quarter of a century later, Jennings has never topped.

On "Heroes," also just rereleased, nine of the 10 songs were written by Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver was a kindred spirit to Jennings. He'd done time as a drifter and lost a few fingers on his right hand to a sawmill. "Digits" Shaver (my nickname, not his) drifted to Nashville in the late '60s where Kristofferson took a shine to him and covered one of his songs. According to "Waylon: An Autobiography," Shaver buttonholed him one night at the Nashville RCA studio. "I got these songs," said Shaver. "And if you don't listen to them, I'm going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody."

"Everybody" included the biker-type heavies that Jennings hung out with. Before Jennings had his boys beat the shit out of Shaver, he decided to let the guy sing one song. One led to two. And to three. Jennings decided on the spot to record an entire album of Shaver's work, even though he still had pretty much an unproven reputation in Nashville. During the session, nervous record executives called the studio every day to keep tabs on the progress. Shaver hung around, too, bitching about the way his songs were being recorded until Jennings kicked him out.

The final result is glorious. The 10 songs -- 12 on the CD -- aren't really honky-tonk numbers. There are a few upbeat songs, but there's a decided lack of jangling pianos. (Folk singer Oscar Brand once said the term "honky-tonk" came from Tonk pianos manufactured by William Tonk and Sons of New York in the late 1800s.) Jennings' voice sounded fuller than it had in the 1960s, but it hadn't yet plumped out into his later outlaw voice. Still, it works fine for these songs. He sings about how he left his hometown for San Francisco in "Omaha." On "Black Rose," he's a white Southerner who has the hots for a black woman. "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me" is about an overdue wife and a pal who wants him to go on a cross-country ramble. And he insists that there "Ain't No God in Mexico."

The deliberately sparse arrangements make the album feel timeless. Drums, bass and acoustic rhythm guitar predominate. Bee Spears' bass sounds a bit thin, due to the recording technology of the time. That said, the sparseness of "Honky Tonk Heroes" still sounds particularly modern. Every other song is peppered with steel guitar and violin, and each is a heartfelt riff, not just more generic C&W colorings.

"Heroes" didn't make Jennings a superstar. That didn't happen until around '76, after the release of "Wanted! The Outlaws," a compilation that featured Jennings, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser. He became huge, but neither he nor Shaver ever again recorded anything as glorious, real and honest as "Heroes."

Ain't no God in Nashville.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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