Clip: Waylon Jennings box set
New CD set is a road map of Waylon Jennings' life
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
By Ed Masley
In his liner notes to "Nashville Rebel," a four-CD box set arriving in
stores today, Rich Kienzle, a country historian based in Greensburg,
writes that for a lot of people, Waylon Jennings boiled down to one
And although in the 1960s Jennings recorded a Harlan Howard song
called "Nashville Rebel" -- and starred in a drive-in movie of the
same name -- you can bet that box-set title is referring more to
Jennings' starring role, alongside Willie Nelson, in the Outlaw
movement of the '70s.
But Lenny Kaye, the Patti Smith guitarist who became the country
maverick's friend while co-writing his autobiography, says branding an
artist as complex as Jennings an outlaw may be oversimplifying things.
"In some ways," Kaye, who also wrote an essay for the liner notes,
says, "I don't think he was an outlaw. He just basically wanted to be
himself. If that makes you an outlaw, then what does that make the
society you're supposedly rebelling against?"
The earliest RCA Nashville recordings by Jennings, who died in 2002,
found him doing what he could to make the Nashville Sound his own,
allowing producer Chet Atkins to flesh out the sound of the band he'd
brought from Phoenix with a small army of session musicians and
It's only when Atkins stopped using his band altogether that Jennings
started having problems.
"He started raising a little hell with Chet," says drummer Richie
Albright. "And I said, 'Waylon, just roll with it. You're just trying
to get off the ground.' He finally gave in to it, but he didn't like
Uncomfortable being what Kaye calls a cog in the Nashville machine, he
liked it even less when, later in the '60s, Atkins reassigned him to
producer Danny Davis of the Nashville Brass who, according to Kienzle,
"never had a feel for country music and certainly never had a feel for
what Waylon was doing. It was assembly-line crap, and Waylon had no
tolerance for that."
Which would explain the .22 he waved around the studio one
legend-making day, demanding that the session players look up from
their charts. That got him reassigned to Ronny Light, a far more
compatible choice in producers. But by that point, the battle was on.
And after bringing in a tough new manager, Neil Reshen (the kind of
guy who, as Albright says, "knows where the bodies are buried"), to
handle negotiations when his RCA contract came up for renewal,
Jennings scandalized the industry by winning the kind of creative
control once enjoyed by his honky-tonk heroes before the Nashville
Sound took over in the '50s.
"It was almost heresy," says Kienzle, "to Chet and a lot of people on
Music Row who felt that Waylon was trying to storm the battlements
with something revolutionary when in fact it was almost something of a
neo-conservative approach. He wanted to go back to the kind of
artistic freedom that Hank Williams had, that Bob Wills had, that
Lefty Frizzell and all these other singers he looked up to had."
The records he made with that freedom effectively ushered in the
golden age of Waylon Jennings -- and not just artistically, either. A
year after winning his freedom, he and Nelson co-produced his first
chart-topping country single, "This Time." And he followed it up with
such chart-topping classics as "Luckenbach, Texas" and "Good Hearted
Woman," while starring with Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Colter
(Jennings' fourth and final wife) on country's first platinum album,
"Wanted: The Outlaws," in a year when even conservatives had to admit
that sometimes revolution is a good thing, 1976.
The first authoritative overview of Jennings' life in music,
"Nashville Rebel" takes the listener from "Jole Blon," a 1958 debut
produced by Buddy Holly, to "I Do Believe," a 1995 track with the
Highwaymen, a country Traveling Wilburys that also featured Nelson,
Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. An RCA Nashville Legacy release,
the box, which boasts a 140-page booklet packed with photos, carries a
list price of $49.98.
Rob Santos explains that his goal in producing the box was simple: "If
someone says, 'How can I learn about Waylon?' ... just hand them this
And the story it tells is that even when Nashville was calling the
shots, the man's vocals could cut through the gloss and go straight to
the heart of a lyric, from "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" to the
downright mean-spirited "Mental Revenge." But by the time you get to
Jennings' first self-produced track, 1972's "Lonesome, On'ry and
Mean," he'd taken country in what Santos calls "a whole other
direction," making "country music with an edge," informed by rock 'n'
roll (he had played bass for Buddy Holly, after all) without betraying
Jennings' love of country.
As Kaye says, "I think he grew up in a time where you could hear rock
all over the place, but given a choice, he didn't become a rocker. He
chose country." Rock 'n' roll at the turn of the '60s was stuck in
perpetual adolescence, catering to clean-cut kids.
"And that wasn't the kind of edge Waylon had in his life or his
approach to music," says Kaye. "I think he found in country the kind
of resonance, the kind of depth of feeling that suited his own sense
Integrity, of course, defined the Outlaw movement -- a revolution
whose greatest legacy, says Kienzle, may be that it "proved that if an
artist has enough talent and vision, they can take charge of their
careers and do it successfully. And that's continued to this day. I
think Waylon gave country performers a model to go by. He gave them a
sense of what was possible if they wanted to fight hard enough."