THE MUSIC INSIDE: A Collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Vol 1, Is an Odd, Mixed Bag
THE MUSIC INSIDE: A COLLABORATION WITH WAYLON JENNINGS, VOL. 1
Perhaps the roguest of the Outlaw Movement — Nashville’s insurrectionist Music Row rejectionists who put down their claim in Texas and included Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver and Jennings’ great love Jessi Colter — Waylon Jennings had a swaggering backbeat, lacerating guitars, gun shot drums and a voice that rumbled like a bulked-up muscle car at midnight. And for all the bluster, there was a “I wouldn’t do that…” sense of authority to his bravado that gave country a bad ass edge shot through with redemption.
In today’s reductionistic mainstream, where so much of the “hit” music seems sanitized for your protection, the patriotism is sound-bite-able, the rowdy is more frat house than roadhouse and the edge is 80s rock, not a hard ride through some roughneck turf. It makes Waylon Jennings a bit of an anomaly in today’s modern country — revered and embraced for a rebellion most of today’s stars don’t understand, and desperately needed to inject some verve and testosterone into the posuer zone.
With those stakes defined, THE MUSIC INSIDE arrives, the first of a three volume tribute series endorsed and involving Jennings’ widow Jessi Colter and their song Shooter Jennings, who contributes a very adult and tender read on “Belle of the Ball.” Uneven to be sure, the family involvement provides a balance that allows for that seemingly oxymoronic gentleness that was as much a part of the “Lukenbach, Texas” singer’s soul as the snarl he’s known for.
And to that end, it’s a wondrous thing to hear Randy Houser — perhaps the best true jukejoint country singer today — hit a sexy, blues-induced take on what could easily be Jennings’ manifesto “I’m A Ramblin’ Man,” a loose, but intense take that stretches notes without succumbing to trick-roping or histrionics to telegraph his capabilities as a singer.
Obviously Jamey Johnson — the sole objector down on Music Row, but one in danger of becoming a cariacture of conscientious objector — reprises Waylon’s essential self with the thumping opener “This Time.” A Bobby Womack song, covered by the Stones but certainly owned by Jennings, the low intensity juxtaposition of warning and quais-indifference says “don’t tread on me” with the same implied menace that made Jennings’ so commanding.
Ironically, some of the older guard are the ones who sound more safe and tired. John Hiatt, easily one of post-modern music’s most soulful singers comes off as worn out on “Just To Satisfy You,” though it could be as much a function of accomdating a post-mortem Jennings’ duet — which would need to be sung in the key key Jennings’ cut it in, not necessary one suited to the “Memphis in the Meantime”/”Have A Little Faith In Me” songwriter/soul singer.
Even more disconcerting is Alabama’s reunion. Obviously beneficiaries of Jennings’ will to rock, the Hall of Fame band is clinical at best, going through the motions on the once acerbic “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” All the invective and indictment that made the original an M80 of show business hubris is missed for a straight read — or the Disneyfication of a true rebel.
Not that all the legends come up short. Jessi Colter joins a decidedly frisky, decidedly old bar-room country Sunny Sweeney for a rollicking “Good Hearted Woman.” Not just a euphoric acceptance of how boys will be boys, it’s a buoyant celebration of the ladies who’re women enough to love’em — and the joie de vivre is effusive.
Equally impactful is Kris Kristofferson’s creaking voiced caress of the cautionary tale of obsession that is “Rose in Paradise,” a #1 hit in country radio’s more open-minded 80s. Joined by the silken-voiced Patty Griffin, the sand-paper and smooth contrasts speaks to the deepest truths of who Waylon Jeninngs’ was, as well as the often conflicting nature of love itself.
The polemics that set Jennings apart are witnessed by the man himself, on the loping set closing “Go Down Rockin’,” which acknowledges the church pew even as it honors the combustive nature of the road that he followed as a grown man. Not one to take things on face value, the legendary man with the kinetic baritone challenged so much of how things were done — musically, professionally and personally — to carve a legacy people are still talking about and trying to take for their own.
Obviously, the trouble with tributes is how does one bring the charge and the life to something designed to be reverent. For Jennings, it’s kicking out the footlights, burning down the mission, but still knowing how to kiss a lady good-night and see the joy in a little kid’s eyes. Ironically, it is the tenderness on THE MUSIC INSIDE that shines — far more than the raucous edges — but for a man known more for the “Ain’t Living Long Like This” turbo-frenzy, perhaps it is in turning down the bad ass, the so often overlooked aspects get honored for a change.