NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Waylon Jennings’ “America”

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

It’s been just over a year since Waylon Jennings died and I miss him. His brands of musical authority and quiet but firm leadership are both in short supply these days.

Two upcoming tribute albums will pay homage to the late Outlaw. The first, due April 15, is Lonesome, On’ry and Mean: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings (Dualtone). It’s an interesting, uneven work that just serves to underscore the genius of Jennings’ work and the power and majesty of his voice. You ache for him to step in and take control of things. The lineup is impressive: Guy Clark , Kris Kristofferson , John Doe from X, Henry Rollins, Allison Moorer and Alejandro Escovedo, to name some of them.

But Norah Jones more or less steals the show. The quiet little vocalist attacks “Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You),” a song that’s never been one of my Jennings favorites. She takes it over completely and transforms into a bigger song than it seemingly has a right to be. And I’m sure that Waylon would get a kick out of that: a young jazz singer who’s still discovering country music and yet can interpret the music better than a lot of other singers should logically be able to. Some people forget, or didn’t know, that Waylon was a friend of the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis and was a sideman and protégé of rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly and that there were many musical influences percolating under the surfaces of his work.

The second album, I’ve Always Been Crazy: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings, will be released by RCA as the official tribute on July 1 and will include tracks by Jennings’ widow Jessi Colter and their son Shooter. The eclectic mix will also include Metallica’s James Hetfield, John Mellencamp, Ben Harper, Pinmonkey , Dwight Yoakam , Kid Rock , Travis Tritt , Brooks & Dunn , Kenny Chesney and Hank Williams Jr. and more.

One song that I feel would be a welcome addition to either album is one that meant a great deal to Jennings, although he didn’t write it. He recorded it in place of a song he felt that he was unable to write. Although Jennings didn’t write much, the songs that were his own were memorable. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” are two stellar examples of his songwriting.

But in 1984 he picked out a song that he later called his “farewell anthem for RCA.” After almost 20 years with RCA Records, they were parting ways and for an anthem he wanted a special song. He later said he felt inspired by the 1984 Olympics and wanted to write a patriotic song but didn’t like any of his efforts at doing so. “Everything I had was too corny and didn’t sound right,” he wrote in his autobiography, Waylon. Then he remembered a song he had been carrying around with him for years. It was “America,” by Sammy Johns.

“It wasn’t just flag waving,” Jennings wrote. “It was talking about the ideals we had fought for and the blunders committed in their name and the honor that lay behind our national character. I found the song again and listened to it with a decade’s distance. I changed the melody. … I even made a video to go with it, a forerunner of the way music would be watched as well as listened to from then on.” The video is a quiet statement of pride in America, and it’s very moving to this day to watch.

As far as I know, “America” was the closest thing to a political statement that Waylon Jennings ever made. And I don’t think any song he recorded meant more to him than did “America.”

It came out in 1984, the same year that Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” also debuted. As a personal matter, I feel “America” is a far more eloquent statement. Rather than being a manifesto, “America” is a ballad to this land and her people. It acknowledges this country’s challenges and problems but it also celebrates those things that make America unique.