(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Mark your calendar if you’re a real country music fan. One of the most anticipated country music boxed sets ever is coming soon. On Sept. 26, Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel will hit stores and online sales outlets.
Jennings, who died in 2002, has never been represented well by any comprehensive anthologies of his recordings. And it’s interesting these days that you hear samplings of the Waylon Jennings beat and his attitude in stuff like Dierks Bentley cuts and Eric Church songs and sides by other country artists. They are not ripping him off. They are paying him a compliment.
Of all recent country superstars, I think his body of work maintained the most consistent high level of quality throughout his career. I first met Jennings in the early 1970s because I wrote a very critical review of one of his albums. And he liked my review.
What happened was this. I reviewed his album Ladies Love Outlawsfor the rock magazine Creem. I wrote that the album seemed unfinished and tentative and sounded mainly like a work in progress. A few days after the magazine came out, I was sitting in our apartment in Austin, Texas, and the phone rang. The voice on the line said “Mr. Flippo? This is RCA Nashville. Please hold for Waylon Jennings.” It scared the hell out of me. I knew his reputation as a rugged guy, and there could be only one reason why he was calling me. How the hell he was reading Creem was beyond me, and I regret now that I never asked Waylon about that before he died.
But when Waylon came on the phone line, he said, and I’m re-creating what I remember, “Hoss, I read your review of my record and I just want to tell you this. You were right, you heard it right. I was sick with hepatitis and never finished this record. RCA took what I had done and put it out without telling me. You’re an honest man. Come ride the bus with us sometime.”
So I did. A couple of weeks later, I climbed abroad Waylon’s battered old black Bluebird bus and rode a tour through the Southwest and the mountain states with him and began a lifelong friendship. I will never forget watching him perform at New York City’s altar of hipness and punk rock, Max’s Kansas City in 1973 in his leather and silver and turquoise and him proclaiming, “I’m Waylon G*da*n Jennings. … We do country music. That’s what we call it, and we do a little rock with it. And if you like it, I wish you’d tell somebody. But if you don’t like it, and you ever come to Nashville, Tenn., and say that, we’ll kick your ass.” Those hipsters and punkers loved him after that.
So anyway, my point is that he always maintained very high musical standards for his work. Once he wrested production control of his recordings away from RCA, his albums showed a quantum leap in aural quality. I challenge anyone to play me any better-sounding or more vital music than Waylon’s analog vinyl records of the mid-1970s. The sound fairly jumps out of the speakers and grabs you by the throat and shakes you. You can’t put that on MP3.
And you can hear that raw sound progress throughout his career in this new four-CD, 92-track boxed set, which begins with his 1958 recording of the Cajun classic “Jole Blon,” cut in Clovis, N.M., and produced by Waylon’s West Texas friend and rock pioneer Buddy Holly. It progresses through his career and songs from the brilliant albums of the ’70s, with Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, Honky Tonk Heroes, This Time, The Ramblin’ Man and Dreaming My Dreams. His later work is no less important, but not as urgent as the body of work he was churning out at the height of his creative — and impatient — powers. He was in a hurry to get a lot of things off his mind.
This boxed set presents, I think, a pretty balanced view and window on his career. And it shows that he was the perfect bridge between Hank Williams and Buddy Holly and early rock ’n’ roll and pure honky-tonk and what later became Outlaw Country. It’s all there.
I think there’s a good case to be made for the argument that Waylon was the most authoritative country singer to ever take a stage or grab a microphone or a Telecaster guitar. Hank was the saddest, Jones is the most heart-wrenching, Willie is the wisest, Cash was the voice of eternity and Kris is the conscience of country. But Waylon — the man was always totally in charge. And you knew it.
He was the most damn honest man I have ever known. You can hear it in his music.
A postscript: Winners from last week’s “Transom” contest are Wil Zoetekouw of Bergharen, the Netherlands; Tom Prestopnik of Port St. Lucie, Fla.; Tom Wilk of Pitman, N.J.; Stephen Tanko of Superior, Wis.; and Eddie White of Greensboro, N.C. Thanks to them and all the other readers who submitted entries. More to come in the future.