NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Waylon Sings Hank

A Vanished Album of Classic Songs Reappears

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

This is one for the history books. An almost-unknown Waylon Jennings album is released 21 years after it was recorded. Waylon Sings Hank Williams is an unexpected 2006 release. And a very welcome one.

This was supposedly recorded in 1985, the year that Waylon and RCA Records parted ways after being together for 19 years. Discography information on this album is scant, but this was apparently recorded around the time he released his RCA album, Turn the Page.

Waylon released it only on cassette on his own WJ Records label in 1992 under the title Ol’ Waylon Sings Ol’ Hank. It received little notice and quickly disappeared. It was numbered WJ 1001 and was the first — and only — album ever released on WJ Records. He didn’t mention it in his autobiography. You have to wonder if there were other factors involved in keeping this so low-key as to be almost invisible. Like business reasons or song publishing reasons. Just wondering.

The first songwriter album he cut was 1967′s Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan, on which he cut 12 of Harlan Howard’s songs. Then, of course, there was 1973′s Honky Tonk Heroes, on which all songs but one were written by Billy Joe Shaver.

Now YMC Records of Dallas, a specialty company, has gotten the rights from the Jennings estate to release the Hank album on CD as Waylon Sings Hank Williams, which will be released Tuesday (Aug. 29). And it’s pretty damned good. Waylon was in very good voice, and the band is really kicking. It’s interesting, though, that this release is not even mentioned on the official Waylon Web site.

Hank was obviously a fixture and a landmark for Waylon throughout his life. When I wrote a biography of Hank, Waylon and I had a long talk about what Hank meant in the greater scheme of things. He fully understood the lure of the Hank myth — the doomed young poet bound to die in the midst of his musical genius. But he also felt Hank had shown the way to country greatness and to its destiny. Despite Hank’s frailties and mistakes, Waylon said, he created a map of the route to a sort of musical heaven. Everything Waylon ever did in his career, he considered it against the Hank standard. What would Hank do? Waylon believed Hank rode his tour bus with him as his personal tour guide, and I never had reason to doubt him, because I rode Waylon’s bus a few times with him and there was palpably a great aura living there in the bus.

Waylon didn’t write many songs, but I think the greatest one he wrote was “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” which he furiously scribbled down on an envelope in his Cadillac while driving to the Hillbilly Central studio in 1975. If you carefully study it, it’s basically just a two-chord song that has no business being a No. 1 country hit, which it was. But its lyrical and musical power still resonates today. I would quote the words here, but without the music pushing them, it’s not fair to the lyrics.

In many ways, Hank and Waylon were the same person. They both instinctively felt what came to be called the Outlaw spirit but which was in fact just the desire to be artistically free. And that was not something that was encouraged in the Nashville that Hank first came to in 1946 or the Nashville that Waylon first came to in 1965. I’m not sure how much it is encouraged in 2006.

In any event, at great personal cost, both Hank and Waylon left monumental musical legacies. And this CD answers a question I never asked Waylon but obviously should have: which Hank songs he valued or appreciated most.

He very eloquently settles that matter forever with his selection of Hank Williams material here. He covers the usual suspects: “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Half as Much,” “Blues Come Around,” “I Won’t Be Home No More,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Cold Cold Heart” and “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me” and the rest. But he also selects the almost-never-covered Hank classics “Why Should We Try Anymore” and “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw.”

The CD ends with what is obviously a spoken word excerpt from the audio book for Waylon’s autobiography in which he tangentially talks for a bit about how Hank was his hero. The music is really all we need here, thank you very much. And it’s all there.