Country All-Stars Pay Tribute To Waylon Jennings In Austin
Waylon Jennings passed away over a decade ago, yet his presence seems to be felt more than ever these days as a younger generation of artists embrace his legacy. Maybe this is in rebellion against the debauched landscape of pop country trash, or maybe it’s just because outlaw country is too damn good to ever be forgotten. Whatever it is, multiple generations of artists were all eager to take part in a tribute to the late great outlaw when they gathered at Austin’s Moody Theater on Monday night. With ticket’s fetching up to $400, the all-star gathering was as much a draw for the diehard fans as it was for the acts on the stage. For the hefty ticket price, fans were given close to three hours of Waylon’s greatest hits performed by those that knew him best (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Colter) and those who have undoubtedly found inspiration from his music and style (Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson).
Playing host to the festivities was quirky character actor W. Earl Brown, who sipped from a copper mug and introduced each performer and song. Brown’s commentary gave the set a narrative to compliment the catalogue. There was no shortage of talent, with famed producer Don Was and guitarist Buddy Miller anchoring a top-notch house band. And then there were performers like Lee Ann Womack singing “Ride Me Down Easy” and bringing Miller up for a lovely duet on “Yours Love”, and Sturgill Simpson making a highlight with his take on “Memories of You and I”. There was the gorgeous and talented young Kacey Musgraves, who charmed with her chill-inducing performance of Waylon’s grandiose lullaby “The Wurlitzer Prize”, and local favorite Robert Earl Keen, who injected the energy of an arena into the rambling classic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”. Bearded baritone Jamey Johnson embodied the outlaw spirit and may have stole the show with his commanding version of “Freedom To Stay”. He later joined the angelic-voiced Alison Krauss on “Dreaming My Dreams With You” before jumping into the lively duet of “I Ain’t The One”, complete with saloon tinkering on the piano and soulful vocals from the backup singers. Kris Kristofferson came out to play the slow Highwaymen classic “I Do Believe” and then chuckled his way through a playful, heart-warming duet of “Storms Never Last” with Jessi Colter. Modern cowboy Ryan Bingham lent his raspy drawl to the honky tonking “Rainy Day Woman”, a song he seemed made to play.
There were also the big stars like Toby Keith, who left the solo cup shtick behind and embraced his country roots with a rousing “Honky Tonk Heroes” that had the crowd dancing and singing along. Half bad boy and half Bono, a leather-clad Eric Church was a frightening sight for anyone who misses the days of bullshit-free country, but he redeemed himself with his take on Waylon’s best traveling anthem, “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean”. Of course, it was the Red-Headed Stranger who got the biggest cheers when he finally appeared, jamming on “Til I Gain Control Again” and inviting a slew of performers up to play with him; Toby Keith on “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys”, rising star Chris Stapleton on “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, Bobby Bare on “Good-Hearted Woman”, Sturgill Simpson on barroom staple “I Can’t Get Off On You”. All of this was met with cheers, hollers, and sing-a-longs as the crowd watched Waylon’s best-known running buddy and collaborator reinvigorate these timeless tunes.
When so much talent gathers under one roof there’s only one thing that can happen: an all-star performance. The night concluded in fine fashion when first Willie (sort of) reunited supergroup the Highwaymen, playing with Kris Kristofferson and inviting Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings to fill in the rolls of Johnny Cash and Waylon. Soon, the stage was filled with all the performers, who, joined by the audience and led by Willie, all took part in singing “Luckenbach Texas”, ending the show on the kind of high sure to leave Waylon’s candle burning bright.