With his partner in crime appearing in Spokane this week, it's a good time to give Waylon Jennings his due. Along with Willie Nelson, Jennings was the original outlaw of country music back in the 1970s. Jennings passed away last year at the seemingly young age of 64 -- it seems young only because a twist of fate granted him most of those years. Way back in 1959, at a dark and snowy Midwest airport, Jennings gave up his seat on a flight to another musician. It was "the day the music died": Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper went down with the plane. Jennings had been the bass player in Buddy Holly's band, and after another decade of doing his own stripped-down thing, he made the most of his second chance. His sound clearly caught on in a big way: He cut 16 No. 1 singles. Obviously, a lot of people were listening, as an eclectic bunch of musicians pays tribute on this Duotone recording.
Guy Clark leads things off with Jennings' biggest hit, "Good-Hearted Woman." Another you'll remember is Radney Foster's take on "Luckenbach, Texas." Both were signature songs of both Waylon and Willie, who recorded four albums together. Dubbed outlaws because they didn't play by the Nashville rules, the two rewrote the direction of country music. Kris Kristofferson, who was another influential country artist (long before he ever got into the movies), sings "I Do Believe," an introspective song Waylon wrote later in life.
But Waylon and Willie's influence goes beyond country, as other tracks prove. Norah Jones' "Wurlitzer Prize (I Don't Want to Get Over You)" becomes a classic all over again, with her jazz trio backing her. But among some stiff competition, Henry Rollins steals the CD with his driving version of "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean." Fittingly, they left it until the final track.
By the early 1980s, Jennings had faded from headliner status. He continued touring and had loyal fans to the end, but nothing quite like the adulation showered on Willie Nelson. Without this tribute, we might only have had late-night AM radio encounters to remind us of his contribution.
Publication date: 07/31/03