The top 10 reasons you should check out Waylon’s pre-outlaw recordings
Waylon Jennings is the quintessential outlaw country star, ranking far above even Willie Nelson. In fact, only three other figures in the entire history of country music- Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, and Hank himself- even come close to touching him and I would be very hard-pressed to pick a favorite from that group.
In the early ’70s, Waylon recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, an entire album (give or take a song) of compositions by Billy Joe Shaver and in the process both men became icons. A few years later he cemented his place as the greatest country artist of the 1970s when he released Dreaming My Dream, perhaps the best country album ever recorded in a studio and Waylon Live which rivals Johnny Cash’s two prison albums for the best concert recording in the genre.
Close your eyes and picture Waylon and I’m sure you’ll all have the same image: a big, burly badass with long hair, a full beard, shades, and a cowboy hat, perhaps a lit cigarette in his mouth. And lest we forget, the signature black and white Telecaster that was nearly as cool as the man himself.
Still, an often-forgotten fact is that, while Honky Tonk Heroes made him a legend, he was already a legitimate star. In fact name recognition is what set the outlaw movement apart from other similar movements both before and after in the public consciousness. Most of today’s mainstream country music fans have no idea who James McMurtry is, but country fans in the early ’70s were definitely aware of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as fantastic songwriters and undoubtedly knew who Waylon Jennings was. By the time the outlaw movement got underway he had already won a Grammy, had great chart success, made numerous national TV appearances, and even starred in a film.
Yet these early recordings are often thought of as sub-par by fans. The fact is that, indeed they are if you compare them to what came later in his career, but for most other artists the 28 tracks collected on The Dark Side of Fame, a recently released compilation of Waylon’s late ’60s work (including several previously unreleased recordings) would be a damn good greatest hits collection and not merely a footnote.
Of course I already owned several of Waylon’s pre-outlaw albums on vinyl and had thus heard most of what’s on this compilation. Still there were a few tracks I was unfamiliar with an even two previously unreleased alternate takes. As most of this material is very hard-to-find and expensive on CD, this compilation is a real bargain that I would recommend to any Waylon fan, although newcomers should probably start by checking out the albums I mentioned earlier.
I’m not going to talk about each of the 28 songs individually, but I will give you ten reasons this material should be in your collection.
1. “Delia’s Gone”- Johnny who? This version of the classic folk song frankly leaves Mr. Cash’s excellent acoustic interpretation in the dust. Waylon borrows the melody from “The House of the Rising Sun” and the psychedelic country backing, complete with a soprano voice in the background, slowly builds in intensity along with Waylon’s vocals. This is seriously one of the most haunting tracks I have ever heard.
2. “MacArthur Park”- This slow-burning, heavily orchestrated, Grammy-winning rendition of the Jimmy Webb-penned classic is actually a duet with the Kimberleys from the album Country Folk. Waylon was at his best with stripped-down, simple arrangements and this track seems to be intentionally playing against every one of those strengths. And still he nails it.
3. “The Chokin’ Kind”- This Harlan Howard-penned ballad was always among the best in Waylon’s catalog and this alternate take is nearly as good as the master. Legend has it that he had to go to quite extreme measures to get producer Chet Atkins to let him do this song the right way. But luckily for us, Chet eventually came around.
4. “The Days of Sand and Shovels”- Ok, I apologize. But the fact is that I’m a sucker for these types of melancholy, nostalgic and heavily orchestrated pop tunes (the original was done by Bobby Vinton). Part of it is probably hearing one of my favorite artists doing a song like this. Another is the fact that the recording is brilliant.
5. “Julie”- Waylon wrote this honky tonk story song himself. The tune tells the tale of a man who marries a woman who “was everything evil with the face of a child” and eventually ends up inside a mental institution. The fast-paced accompaniment lightens the mood just a little, but this is still very dark material.
6. “Beautiful Annabel Lee”- Another one written by Harlan Howard (via Edgar Allan Poe), this love ballad features one of Waylon’s most unique vocals. He seems to be trying to imitate George Jones and the result sounds like something else entirely, but it is all pure Waylon.
7. “Six Strings Away”- Another Waylon-penned song, this autobiographical number is similar lyrically to what he would be doing during his outlaw period and musically it is pure classic country with one minor adjustment: a fuzz distortion pedal on the electric guitar.
8. “For the Kids”- A heartbreaking Shel Silverstein tune about a couple falling out of love and how it affects their children. The accompaniment here is mostly just acoustic guitar, background vocals, and an occasional burst of organ.
9. “Singer of Sad Songs”- A perfect late ’60s country-rock song about the role of a singer in a rural community. This is quite catchy and comes close to the sound he would become famous for.
10. “The Dark Side of Fame”- A traditional country ballad about fame leading to alcoholism and addiction. Perhaps his passionate performance here has something to do with his own experiences, but whether it does or not, it is one of his best. And I don’t know if that’s Floyd Cramer playing piano or not, but it sure sounds like it.
In summation, I think The Dark Side of Fame is a great introduction to Waylon’s early years, but whether you choose to get it or another disc, by all means check out some of his pre-outlaw work. As long as you aren’t expecting masterpieces on the level of Dreaming My Dreams, you will be very pleasantly surprised and you will see that, even before the outlaw years, the man simply did not (or maybe could not) fit in to the mainstream.
As a side note, if any Waylon fans are looking for something worth watching on TV, CMT is now showing reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard again.