NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Waylon Live: Lightning in a Bottle

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

Great live country music albums can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. For too many years, live production values for live country music shows were sloppy and erratic. In addition, there wasn’t much of a market for a live album for the majority of the country music buying audience, which was informed mainly by hearing singles on country radio, which inspired them to buy albums, tapes and CDs for home and car and truck play.

The landmark live country albums are few and far between: 1962’s Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall, Buck Owens’ Carnegie Hall Concert from 1966, Willie Nelson’s Willie and Family Live from 1978, Ernest Tubb’s Live at the Spanish Castle 1965, Emmylou Harris’ At the Ryman from 1992 and 1968’s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and 1969’s Johnny Cash at San Quentin.. Cash’s Folsom Prison album has been pretty much the consensus up till now as the best live country album ever. But a new Waylon Jennings release may challenge that.

Waylon Live: The Expanded Edition (BMG Heritage) stems from two Jennings live recording sessions in 1974, one night in Dallas at The Western Place and the following two nights at Austin’s Opry House.

Versions one and two of those sessions have been issued previously. Jennings originally envisioned the project as a double album, which would have been highly unusual at the time. Not surprisingly, his label, RCA, balked at the idea and released only a single album with 11 cuts in 1976 as Waylon Live. Even so, it topped the Billboard country album chart for six weeks. In 1999, Buddha Records added nine cuts and re-released the album. But the new release adds 22 more songs to that lineup, for a total of 42 out of the 50 songs that Jennings recorded. This two-CD package contains just over two hours of seriously good live country music performed by one of its masters.

Waylon was at the height of his powers then, fresh off a stint of opening shows for the Grateful Dead. I was at the Austin shows, at the funky old Opry House, and those shows were as good or better than any live music I’ve ever experienced. In his liner notes, Rich Kienzle writes that with these recordings Waylon “literally caught lightning in a bottle,” and I can’t improve on that.

With his authoritative voice, take-charge manner and masterful guitar playing, Waylon was a giant on stage. The man was in total control of his audiences. This is about the power of live music. This is music with the power of a rock show — loud, driving and relentless. Waylon and his old Telecaster fronted what was probably the tightest band he ever had. That version of the Waylors was anchored by the great steel guitarist Ralph Mooney, the rock-solid drummer Richie Albright and the rock-hard guitarist and harmony singer Billy Ray Reynolds.

The songs are the core of his repertoire for life. There’s Steve Young’s mournful “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” which became a signature song for Waylon — as did Lee Clayton’s “Ladies Love Outlaws.” There are Kristofferson classics like “Me and Bobby McGee.” Some Billy Joe Shaver chestnuts such as “Slow Rollin’ Low.” A rocking, definitive version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1).” Here’s Waylon’s solo version of “Good Hearted Woman” before he added Willie’s vocal to it and his own compositions such as “Rainy Day Woman.” It was — and remains – real working-class music. If he sang it, you could believe it.

Waylon Live is a potent reminder that country music is not always best appreciated in antiseptic arenas and coliseums. You need to get out now and then and see and hear some country music in its natural environment — the honky-tonk, dancehall milieu where it flourished, where there are still hints of sudden violence and glimmers of stolen kisses and the musky undercurrent of simmering sex. All of those elements were fundamental to Waylon’s live shows. When I went out with him on tours, there were two constants at his shows: women who wanted to love him and men who were so jealous of his obvious power that they wanted to whip his ass. But they all admired the hell out of him.

Just listen to those cheers when he introduces “Bob Wills Is Still the King”: “This is about a guy who did as much for our kind of music as anybody.”

And then even louder cheers when he sings: “Lord I can still remember, the way things were back then/In spite of all the hard times, I’d live it all again/To hear the Texas Playboys and Tommy Duncan sing/Makes me proud to be from Texas where Bob Wills is still the king.”